‘That broke me inside:’ Getting justice for rape victims an uphill battle

‘That broke me inside:’ Getting justice for rape victims an uphill battle

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WMBF) - A 22-year-old woman was drinking in Myrtle Beach when she called a cab to take her home.

The driver didn’t take her there. Instead, he drove her to a bar and then to the beach. A little while later, police found her lying unconscious in the sand with little clothing on.

Another woman was dragged behind a construction trailer in Myrtle Beach. She fought for her life while screaming, ‘Help! Rape! Stop!” according to court documents.

A convenience store clerk in Surfside Beach was forced by gunpoint into a backroom.

A 71-year-old woman was checking on her property when she was thrown to the ground, tied up, clothes cut off.

Their perpetrators were each sentenced to years in prison. These outcomes, though, are not the norm.

Out of 1,000 rapes, only 230 are reported. Of those, 46 lead to an arrest and less than five result in incarceration, according to the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network.

“The strongest of all rape cases actually are the most dire, the ones that just kill you to your core,” said 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson.

Richardson said the 2019 case involving the 71-year-old woman could not have been proven without a rape kit.

“She is sitting there telling you, ‘I don't know,’” Richardson said. “This person never met this person before the door got kicked off the hinges. In comes this guy I've never met before, maybe with a mask, maybe not. Without DNA you don't, you probably don't solve that.”

Although the DNA found in a rape kit can be crucial in a case, Richardson admits there are times cases have to go to court before the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division sends the kit back with the results.

“Sometimes it's a big deal. Sometimes it's not as big of a deal,” he said.

Richardson said the rape kit being incomplete isn’t the hardest part of trying a sexual assault case.

In many cases, the issue comes down to not proving who did it, but proving if the sex was consensual or not.

In cases where solicitors have to argue consent, the rape kit is not as valuable because the individual is already known. Richardson said a majority of cases are a battle over consent.

The difficulty of those cases is something the victim services director for Richardson’s office, Patty Fine, has to explain to survivors.

“We have to give them the hard reality of it’s never easy. No case that you take in the courtroom that you have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt to 12 people sitting on a jury is ever going to be easy,” Fine said.

This reality is often tough for victims to face.

Madison was one of the few victims who was ready and willing to testify in the courtroom, but she wasn’t given the chance.

Almost two years after her assault, Madison received a disappointing call from the 15th Circuit Solicitor’s Office in March. She said they told her they didn’t feel like they had enough evidence and decided not to prosecute her case.

“That broke me inside,” she recalled. “It was heartbreaking to me because it didn't go to a trial because the solicitor's office didn't want to pursue it because there was the opportunity that they weren't going to win, and they're focusing on the win.”

Fine said solicitors must look at cases objectively.

“It’s not always the best outcome that we see happening,” Fine explained. “Prosecutors are not attorneys for victims; they are prosecutors for the state of South Carolina.”

For Richardson, this often means setting feelings and beliefs aside.

“I truly believed that they have been victimized, but in those cases where you're trying to tell them again with your head instead of with your heart, that it's hard for some people to pick that up,” Richardson explained.

Richardson added around half of the cases the office gets are ones that are not strong enough to move forward with a prosecution.

The victims who do get the chance to continue down the path towards justice still don’t have an easy road ahead, facing daily battles in a war that often lasts years.

Fine explained sexual assault cases take so much time because they take more preparation and effort than others.

“I wish we could do things faster. I wish we could move it through the system and get results of tests quicker, but you know there’s a reason why we can’t,” Fine said.

Of the cases that do get to go through, Richardson said a majority of them end in plea deals. But he said that doesn’t always mean offenders get off on lesser sentences.

“A lot of them end in plea deals simply because I can't determine whether the person goes to trial or not. I can't make a defendant go to trial if he wants to plead guilty,” he said. “But the last plea deal we did, the guy got 40 years. I'll leave it to the viewers to decide if that's a slap on the wrist.”

The endurance court cases take is one reason why survivors choose not to go through the entire process.

“I know how court cases go. They're going to ask you what were you wearing, why were drugs involved? Things like that that would convince a victim that it was their fault. And I've come to a place where I know it's not my fault,” sexual assault survivor Anna said.

Fine said survivors often have a lot of different emotions when they choose whether or not to testify.

“They are concerned about what people may think about them. They are concerned about what is going to happen after they say what they say. Will they be ridiculed by their friends? Will their family look at them differently?” Fine said.

Fine also explained victims are concerned about seeing the offender again in the courtroom.

Anna said her decision not to take her case to court was what was best for her, but she does wish she had the option to change her mind in the future.

“I started thinking about it more of, ‘Where is mine? And what’s happened to it? And could I even move forward today if I wanted?’” Anna said of her sexual assault kit. “That’s kind of a scary thought, that I don’t thoroughly get to make a logical decision to move forward.”

This is the sixth and final part of WMBF’s multi-part “Untested: The Rape Kit Crisis in the Carolinas.” Click here to go to the series’ official homepage.

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