Most sexual assault cases in Salt Lake, Utah counties stall in police departments. New research explains why.

Researchers found most cases in Salt Lake and Utah counties stall with police and are never sent to prosecutors for possible charges.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Editor’s note: This story discusses sexual violence. If you need assistance or resources, Utah’s 24-hour sexual violence crisis and information hotline is available at 1-888-421-1100.

Just one in 10 sexual assault cases in Salt Lake and Utah counties end in a conviction, and police send less than half to a prosecutor to be considered for charges, according to new research into how law enforcement handles cases.

The study also found that suspects who were people of color in Utah County are nearly three times more likely to be charged than white assailants. And whether a victim was asleep and awakened to the assault is the greatest predictor in both counties of whether a case will be prosecuted, making it far more likely.

In the cases examined by researchers, the victim was at least 18 years old, wanted to talk with police to pursue prosecution, and had undergone the full evidence collection process done with a sexual assault kit.

An advocate for sexual assault victims called the data “pretty jarring,” but the study’s author stresses that survivors should not be deterred from reporting crimes and getting help.

A forensic exam after a sexual assault “is more for the care and healing” of a person than it is for evidence collection, said Julie Valentine, associate dean for undergraduate studies and research and an associate professor at Brigham Young University’s College of Nursing.

“Rape is a health care issue,” Valentine said she explains to her patients, when she works as a certified sexual assault nurse examiner with Wasatch Forensic Nurses.

Valentine’s analysis shows “we need to do better for survivors,” said Sonya Martinez-Ortiz, executive director of Rape Recovery Center, which primarily serves Salt Lake County.

“Survivors who choose to report ... shouldn’t do so, having to question if the case will be advocated for or not,” she said. And she added: “There is help available. ... Please seek out support. You’re not alone.”

What’s happening in Salt Lake County?

Two-thirds of the sexual assault cases reported to police in Salt Lake County stop there — and are never sent to prosecutors for them to evaluate whether they could file charges or ask for more investigation before making a decision.

That trend has held steady for years.

In an earlier study by Valentine, which examined cases from 2003 to 2011, 66% of cases in the county stopped at police agencies. The new study found 65% of cases stopped at law enforcement. It reviewed 280 randomly selected cases of 2,031 eligible reports, between 2012 and 2017.

The percentages of cases that result in charges in Salt Lake County, and are successfully prosecuted, also has barely budged.

In the original study, charges were filed in 9% of the reported cases. It was 10% in more recent years.

Six percent of cases were successfully prosecuted — meaning there was a trial with a conviction or a plea bargain — in the first study. In the new review, 7% had successful prosecutions.

But when cases make it to prosecutors, it has become more likely that charges will be filed. In the original study, 24% of cases that law enforcement brought to prosecutors resulted in charges. In the new study, it increased 11%, to 35%.

In both Salt Lake and Utah counties, successfully prosecuted cases were more likely to end with a plea bargain than with a conviction at trial.

Two percent of Salt Lake County’s cases in the new study had not been adjudicated. Some of these were from SAKI, or Utah’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, according to Valentine, where “cases are now being re-looked at,” and sexual assault kits that had not been previously submitted are being tested. Most of the cases examined in the study occurred before Utah enacted HB200 in 2017, which required the testing of all sexual assault kits.

Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill’s office didn’t participate in Valentine’s research. He said in a statement emailed to The Salt Lake Tribune, “I cannot speak to the specifics of the data, but it is clear as a culture we must do better by victims.”

Due to “distrust, a burdensome system and fear,” he said, data shows there is only a 12% chance that a sexual assault in Utah will be reported to law enforcement. Gill said his office takes a “a victim-centered approach to make sure not to re-traumatize victims. We start by believing and work hard to do justice in every case.”

His office also provided its own data, showing law enforcement submitted 1,382 cases to his office’s Special Victims Unit (SVU) in 2020, and it filed charges in 563 of those cases. Through Oct. 29, 1,235 cases had been submitted, and charges were filed in 427.

What about Utah County?

Researchers were studying Utah County’s trends for the first time, and examined 368 random cases, out of 698 eligible ones, between 2010 and 2018. They discovered there was an additional path for cases to take in Utah County — which County Attorney David Leavitt has now shut down.

Of the reported cases, 59% stopped at law enforcement. Another 27% were formally screened with prosecutors. But the remaining 14% took a more casual, unofficial route. That often meant, Valentine said, that an officer called a single prosecutor and asked, “This is what I got. What do you think?”

“We absolutely put the stop to that,” Leavitt said, “because that’s not how we screen cases in our office.” Rather, he said, “we make rational decisions based on the evidence” through a formal process involving multiple people.

Sgt. Nick Dupaix, who is currently a spokesperson for Provo police, previously worked for four years as a detective whose work included sexual assault cases in the department. At times, Dupaix said he “called prosecutors and asked them their thoughts on the case.”

“They obviously don’t tell us how to do the investigation,” Dupaix said, but they could provide input about an “area we seem to be lacking in.”

Leavitt also felt the finding that 59% of cases stop at law enforcement — despite the victim’s willingness to undergo an exam and assist with prosecution — was “incredibly disturbing, for several reasons,” he said. “... If a woman has indicated that she was sexually assaulted and she’s gone through a forensic exam, we need to be following up with that victim, and making sure that we’re doing everything we can to prosecute that case, if there’s a provable case there.”

Of the cases that were screened with prosecutors in Utah County, 55% had charges filed, which is “a large percentage,” Valentine said.

But of the total randomly selected cases reviewed in Utah County, 14% had charges filed, Valentine’s research shows. Ten percent of the cases resulted in a conviction at trial or a plea bargain. And 1% were not adjudicated.

After learning about these findings, Leavitt said, he met with the local police chiefs to create a new protocol, which has been in place for about a year and a half now. They added a new code in the police database, he said, so that Leavitt’s office is notified whenever a sexual assault or rape report is made, “to make sure that the investigation doesn’t fall through the cracks.”

And to reduce the effect of unconscious bias, Leavitt said, his office also tries to make sure there is an equal representation of men and women on the screening team when deciding whether to file charges.

“If you have a rape case and the issue of consent is the issue, and the case is screened by a panel of men, they’re simply not going to see the issues that the panel of women are going to see,” Leavitt said, and vice versa.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah County Attorney David Leavitt speaks at a press conference about the death penalty in Utah on Sept. 14, 2021. Leavitt said his screening teams try to have an equal balance of men and women when deciding whether to file charges in sexual assault cases to reduce the effect of unconscious bias.

The cases that Valentine examined occurred before Leavitt began serving as County Attorney in 2019, but the office participated in the research. “We believe that transparency is great,” Leavitt said, and “we want to be able to always figure out how we can do better.”

Valentine and her team also collaborated with law enforcement agencies in both counties, as well as the state crime laboratory, to compile the data. The research was pursued through the National Institute of Justice Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners’ Toolkit, and it was submitted for publication this month.

The Tribune reached out to multiple police departments for this story, including Lehi, Murray, Orem, Provo, Salt Lake City, Spanish Fork, Unified and Utah County Sheriff. Provo police is the only department that agreed to an interview. The rest either declined comment or did not respond.

Why don’t police send some cases to prosecutors?

Compared to Salt Lake County, officers in Utah County were far more likely to say they did not send a case to prosecutors because they believed there was a lack of evidence or an unfounded claim.

Dupaix, of Provo police, noted that sexual assault cases are “very, very difficult cases to investigate.” Sometimes physical evidence “can corroborate” rape, he said, but at other times it shows only that “some type of sexual intercourse that took place. And it doesn’t really tell us whether consent was given, whether it was withdrawn, whether it was never given.”

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

When a case relies heavily on testimony, he said, it can be “a really difficult thing to really convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt in the end.”

The department explains options for handling a case, Dupaix said, knowing “control was taken away from the victim. We’re trying to help the victim gain as much closure as we can.”

Detectives explain what would happen if a case was investigated and sent to prosecutors, he said, and they leave that decision up to victims. Another option is to file an information report, and the victim can decide later whether they want to pursue charges. “We obviously warn them that the longer the case sits, though, the harder the evidence does become collecting,” Dupaix said.

The most common explanations that law enforcement in Salt Lake County gave for not referring cases was because there was an uncooperative victim or the victim did not want to pursue prosecution.

“This is where the victim says, ‘You know what? I’m done. I don’t want to do this anymore,’” Valentine said. The investigation and prosecution can be “really hard on victims,” she added. And a victim may be considered uncooperative if they stop showing up for interviews, she said, or there were questions they didn’t want to answer.

“We need to consider, how do we engage with victims more, how do we support them more, so that we do not have this high victim attrition rate,” she said.

What makes a case more likely to be prosecuted?

Charges were more likely to be filed, the research showed, if:

• A weapon was involved, or the victim was grabbed or held, or if there were injuries in a victim’s genital area.

• The victim was strangled (5.45 times more likely in Utah County).

• The victim was asleep and awakened to the assault, or it occurred in the context of domestic violence.

• A sexual assault kit was submitted and tested, with results sent to law enforcement.

• The suspect was a person of color (2.83 times more likely in Utah County).

Meanwhile, having a victim who was a person of color was not statistically significant in increasing the likelihood of prosecution, according to Valentine.

The data about minority suspects was only collected in Utah County. When her team reached this finding, Valentine said, she brought it to the sheriff and police chiefs, who “wanted to learn more” and collaborated by providing their own data.

Utah County Attorney Leavitt said his team can only prosecute the cases that come to his office. “The data tells us that people of color are being referred to our office at a higher rate than people not of color,” he said. “And that’s something over which we have very little control.”

Dupaix said he would be interested to see the findings broken down by city and department. And while he can’t speak for all of Utah County, he said, “The hope is ... that we’re not basing our cases on race whatsoever.”

“If we have an allegation that a sexual assault had been committed by a person, ... regardless of the race, we’re going to be investigating it to its full extent,” Dupaix said.

Sleeping victims and victim blaming

The biggest predictor of whether charges would be filed was whether a victim was asleep and awakened to an assault. In Utah County, this factor made a case 8.57 times more likely to be prosecuted, and 3.67 times more likely in Salt Lake County.

“It could be a victim who’s asleep in their bedroom and someone, a stranger, climbs in through the window,” Valentine said, but that was small percentage of cases. What’s more common, she said, is the victim “might be asleep at a friend’s house, and someone they don’t know” or an acquaintance comes in and rapes them.

The discovery of this predictor was unexpected, Valentine said, and she suspects the reason is that “a sleeping person is not engaged in any, what we sometimes term, victim-blaming behaviors. They aren’t out partying and drinking at the time,” or making out with someone.

“They’re just asleep and highly vulnerable,” she said, and “appear blameless.”

Victim blaming is not just an issue that needs to be addressed in the criminal justice system, Valentine said, but also “as a community.”

“We need to consider the frequent response of people to treat rape crimes different than other crimes,” she said, “... and we need to have an end to that. It only hurts our victims and ... our ability to provide justice in these cases.”

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julie Valentine poses for a portrait at Brigham Young University on Friday, June 3, 2016. Valentine is the lead author and researcher of a new study looking at how sexual assault cases are handled by prosecutors and law enforcement in Salt Lake and Utah counties.

This finding is “problematic,” Leavitt said. “Our society does not adequately understand consent. A woman does not need to say no in order to not consent. A woman has to say yes in order to consent.”

Martinez-Ortiz, of Rape Recovery Center, said, “It’s pretty clear that we’re not going to arrest or prosecute our way out of this public health and safety crisis,” and that there needs to be more work done on prevention.

“We need to start really young in order to impact a culture change,” Martinez-Ortiz said, with age-appropriate lessons “talking about body autonomy” and “treating other people with respect, asking for permission.”

For children, that could mean “modeling the behavior of not requiring someone to hug other people without asking for permission, or don’t take a pencil or a crayon from your ... playmate,” she said. “...Then as we get to the older ages, talking about healthy relationships.”

“It’s a cultural problem,” Martinez-Ortiz said.

More referrals means more prosecuted cases

The more that law enforcement send cases to prosecutors for screening for possible charges, Valentine found, the more that cases are prosecuted. This was true for both counties, and she said she hopes this finding encourages law enforcement to screen more cases.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Utah has made “phenomenal” improvements in getting evidence from sexual assault kits tested, Valentine said. But when you add in percentages for successful prosecutions, there’s a “substantial gap,” she said.

“I believe that now we need to take our resources and put them toward helping law enforcement and prosecutors in having more resources to investigate and prosecute these cases,” she said.

That means increasing the number of victim advocates and training about trauma-informed interviews, to help victims feel better supported, she said, as well as an increase in funding, so detectives don’t have huge caseloads.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

While “the majority of survivors do not report” their sexual assault, Martinez-Ortiz, of Rape Recovery Center, said that “every survivor’s healing journey is different.”

“Last year, during the height of the pandemic, the Rape Recovery Center served about 1,100 survivors of sexual violence,” according to Martinez-Ortiz, and “about 45% of those survivors were connected to us during a forensic exam.”

Through October of this year, the center has helped 1,041 survivors, with close to 500 of those coming from advocates responding to sexual assault kits forensic exams, she said.

Whether a person decides to go through the criminal justice system, she said, “we really want to ensure that survivors go to the hospital, seek out medical care, seek out advocacy and support.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.