A day after a jury acquitted the man she said sexually assaulted her, a 21-year-old woman said she feels like the criminal justice system failed her.
There’s pressure put on victims of sexual crimes to report, she said Thursday, but few understand how traumatic the experience can be.
“It’s just two years of straight hell,” she said. “I couldn’t heal. I couldn’t keep going to therapy. You literally have to see your [alleged] rapist all the time. It’s just traumatizing. I wish the court system was better.”
Then a 19-year-old Brigham Young University student, the woman in 2015 reported to police that 39-year-old Nasiru Seidu sexually assaulted her at off-campus apartment. After a two-week trial, a 4th District Court jury on Wednesday found the 41-year-old man not guilty of first-degree felony rape.
The woman said Thursday that she thought a recorded phone call set up by police between herself and Seidu would have been proof enough for jurors that she was assaulted — because he admitted to as much in the call.
In the recorded call, the woman tells Seidu that “what you did was wrong.” She asked him if he understand why it was wrong, and he responds, “Because you told me no.”
“You raped me,” the woman cries in the call, to which Seidu responds, “I tell you, forgive me.”
“I can’t forgive you unless you tell me what you did,” the woman says later in the call.
Seidu responds, “You say that I raped you. I did and I want you to forgive me.”
The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse. The alleged victim in this case has agreed to be identified in news stories about BYU’s sexual assault policies, but did not want her name published during coverage of the trial.
Matt Morrise, Seidu’s attorney, said Thursday that he could not comment publicly on his cases. Utah County Attorney Jeff Buhman said of the verdict: “We respect the decision of the jury.”
In closing arguments Wednesday, Morrise said the state’s case rested solely on whether the jury could believe the alleged victim. He accused her of shifting her account of what happened to suit her audience. Details changed from preliminary hearing to trial, Morrise argued, and when she spoke with news media in her efforts to change reporting policies at BYU.
Morrise said his client also lied, and would have said anything to continue his relationship with the woman, including not telling the truth about his age and marital status. That also included admitting in the phone call that he raped the woman — a false admission made only so that she would forgive him and their relationship could continue, Morrise argued.
“Everyone here was willing to lie to get what they wanted,” he told jurors. “She just isn’t credible. There’s too many stories to choose from.”
Prosecutor Sherry Ragan told the jury that just because Seidu and the woman had a past sexual relationship — and that the encounter in question began as consensual — it doesn’t mean she could not withdraw her consent and ask him to stop if she felt uncomfortable.
“She had gotten dressed,” Ragan argued. “Both her words and her actions are communicating she doesn’t want to have sex anymore. That is not a consensual encounter. That’s rape.”
The jury of five women and three men jury deliberated for about five hours on Wednesday evening before finding Seidu not guilty.
Turner Bitton, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault (UCASA), said he believes the jury likely didn’t understand that consent is “a process” and that if consent is withdrawn, sexual contact should end. He called this misunderstanding a “fundamental problem” in society.
“I would argue that this issue impacts every single person in their life and statistically speaking, one in three women in the state of Utah will experience sexual violence,” he said. “And so when they see their family member or their loved one or their uncle or brother or dad or mother saying on social media, ‘Well, this girl lied,’ it really reinforces the narrative that if this happens to me, I can’t come forward because no one is going to believe me. And it’s vital that we change our culture from a dismissive culture to a believing culture.”
Deputy Utah County Attorney Dave Sturgill, who oversees the four-prosecutor team that handles sexual assaults, said Thursday that sex crimes can be some of the most difficult to take to trial — especially in cases where both parties agree there was sexual contact and the issue is consent.
“A lot of times that has to do with the fact that oftentimes sexual offenses generally don’t happen in public,” he said.
There is often no physical evidence left behind, Sturgill said, and the case often boils down to the alleged victim’s words against a defendant’s. The standard is high — proof beyond a reasonable doubt — and it should be, the prosecutor said.
“We lose sleep over just the screening of cases like this,” Sturgill said, speaking generally. “We struggle with them. On the one hand, we’ve got a woman who feels like she was violated in one of the very worst ways. On the other hand, you have a fellow who is being accused of something and if he didn’t do that, it is just potentially devastating.”
Tribune reporter Taylor Stevens contributed to this report.