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Your body is a crime scene: Police chief, prosecutor talk about investigating, trying sexual assault cases

The Morgantown Police Department and the Monongalia County Prosecutor’s Office work together and with several other agencies to respond to, investigate and resolve sexual assault cases.

MPD Chief Eric Powell explained the general process of how the department responds to and investigates sexual assault cases.

The investigation of a sexual assault case begins when the department receives the initial call.

From there, officers respond. Just like in any other criminal investigation, officers take statements. In sexual assault cases, officers do everything within their power to remove the victim from the suspect and immediately fill out a questionnaire  provided to MPD by the local Rape and Domestic Violence Information Center (RDVIC).

If a responding officer believes there is a direct threat or danger to the victim, the officer explains to the victim what their options are regarding services available to sexual assault victims. The officer explains the criminal, emotional and psychological aspects of those services and offers as many resources as they can in respect to other agencies that are equipped to counsel victims of sexual assault.

If the victim wants to pursue criminal charges, the victim is transported to a local hospital where they will have the option to consent to a sexual assault kit. If a sexual assault kit is done, the kit becomes evidence in any future criminal proceedings or investigations.

Later in the investigation, officers may want to do a full recorded interview with the victim and the suspect in the case.

“The important thing is getting the victim any help they might want or need,” Powell said.

He said  all MPD officers have information regarding support and resources and are always equipped to provide that information to victims.

MPD may work with other law enforcement agencies on a sexual assault case, though they only do so under certain circumstances, Powell said.

If an incident occurs in which an individual was the victim of a sexual assault that took place in MPD’s jurisdiction but lives elsewhere and reports to their local law enforcement agency, MPD works in concert with that agency in gathering evidence and investigating.

If an individual who lives within Morgantown city limits is assaulted outside  city limits, MPD might make contact with the victim and coordinate with other agencies such as the Monongalia County Sherriff’s Department, West Virginia State Police or  other local police departments to determine MPD’s role in the investigation.

Powell said  MPD protocol regarding the completion, handling and testing of sexual assault kits is mandated by the state.

The primary role of MPD in that process is providing the opportunity as best they can for the medical examination by offering transportation. However, victims have the option to deny the examination and MPD does its best to respect the wishes of the victim.

If a sexual assault kit is completed, it becomes part of evidence and is stored briefly at MPD before it is sent to a state-run medical facility where the evidence can either be examined by the West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory (WVSPFL) or stored depending on the victim’s wishes.

Powell said  the length of time it takes for a sexual assault case to be resolved depends on a variety of factors.

“It would be hard to nail down an average because there are so many factors that play into the completion of an investigation to the point where charges are brought and the point that it’s prosecuted. It all is dependent on a lot of different factors — locating witnesses, getting statements, having the evidence itself examined by the lab — so there’s a lot of moving parts with respect to a criminal investigation of sexual assault. The time varies because there are a lot of other entities involved in the entire process,” he said.

One of those moving parts that Powell mentioned is the involvement of Monongalia County Prosecuting Attorney Perri DeChristopher.

DeChristopher said  the Monongalia County Prosecutor’s Office takes a very active role in a case after being notified by law enforcement that they are conducting a sexual assault investigation.

There is a team approach to sexual assault investigations followed in Monongalia County, with Monongalia County’s Sexual Assault Response Team (SART) having been in existence for years, she said.

 SART works together to provide support to victims, gather evidence and to make sure  everyone is working with the common goal of seeking justice, which may result in criminal charges or in a determination that no criminal charges should be brought.

Prosecutors provide law enforcement with advice and guidance as to the applicable law and the evidence that is necessary to support an arrest and conviction.

Prosecutors also support victims during their journey through the criminal justice system by providing  access to the Victim Advocate Office within the Monongalia County Prosecutor’s Office.

“This advocacy is extremely important because it may take up to a year for a sexual assault case to be resolved in court,” DeChristopher said.

If the sexual assault involves a child, Monongalia County has a protocol for investigating child sexual assaults that also involves a team approach. This team includes law enforcement, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, the Monongalia County Child Advocacy Center, medical professionals and many others.

DeChristopher said  in every sexual assault trial, whether it involves a child or an adult, prosecutors must wipe away all of the stereotypes and preconceived notions jurors may have about sexual assault cases.

In many cases, a defendant seeks to convince the jury to participate in victim blaming during their deliberations and thereby absolve the defendant of criminal responsibility.

A prosecutor must first educate jurors and then present the facts of the case to allow jurors to see the crime committed by the defendant.

“Oftentimes, this is a difficult mission, but it is a mission the Monongalia County Prosecutor’s Office has always proudly accepted,” DeChristopher said.


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