AUSTIN (KXAN) — After three women who say they’ve been victims of sexual assault filed a lawsuit Tuesday against various departments in Austin and Travis County claiming they were denied “equal access to justice and equal protection of the law,” sources in the Travis County District Attorney’s Office tell KXAN News they believe there are legitimate concerns raised in the lawsuit.
Both former and current employees in the office, who wished to remain anonymous, said victims may not be the district attorney’s office’s first priority.
Sources pointed to delays in sexual assault trials or the lack of a trial in cases at all as evidence to support their opinions on the matter.
According to national legal experts, however, the accusations outlined in the suit are not limited to Travis County.
“Across the country, we are seeing statistically that cases of sexual violence are not being prosecuted routinely, particularly if the perpetrator is an acquaintance of the victim or if consent is alleged by the perpetrator,” explained Julie Germann, a former sexual crimes prosecutor and attorney consultant with Finding the Right, LLC. “Part of this culture is that prosecutors tend to want to say the hypothetical jury in their community won’t accept those kinds of cases, don’t like them or won’t convict on those facts.”
Germann says the Department of Justice has investigated the non-investigation and handling of sexual assault cases by law enforcement agencies as well as district attorney’s offices in states nationwide.
In March 2011, the DOJ announced it found the New Orleans Police Department had engaged in misconduct that violated the Constitution and federal law in several areas including, but not limited to “a systemic failure to investigate sexual assaults and domestic violence.”
“They started to see a pattern of not prosecuting cases where women were victims and they labeled that practice ‘gender bias,’ the idea being that because women are more often the victims of sexual violence, by not prosecuting those cases, you’re not providing equal protection under the law. You are biased against a group of people, in this case — women,” said Germann.
In September 2011, the DOJ released a report on the Puerto Rico Police Department. Among a long list of findings, the PRPD reportedly failed to investigate reports of sex crimes.
Germann says what may have been most notable was when, from 2008 to 2012, the DOJ investigated both the police department and the prosecutor’s office in Missoula, Montana.
“Some of the DOJ investigations found that the victims felt disrespected. They reviewed 250 cases in Missoula, Montana looking both at the police department there, the campus police department, and the prosecutor’s office,” said Germann.
In this case, the DOJ found general mistreatment of victims, including not returning victims’ calls, not advising them of the status of their case or discussing plea agreements with them, and not interviewing victims before deciding not to charge a case.
When prosecutors did meet with victims, the DOJ found their meetings were often disrespectful, and the nature of their communication with a victim was insulting and demeaning.
“There are lots of ways that victims can feel abused by the criminal justice system,” said Germann. “There are a lot of gender biases and sexual assault stereotypes out there that are held by the general public and sometimes even by law enforcement and prosecutors.”
That includes claims like “she didn’t fight back,” “it wasn’t a real rape,” “if she didn’t report immediately, it wasn’t a real rape,” “if she was drinking or went out with the perpetrator willingly,” it wasn’t a real rape.
“Knowing that our juries think that, if we charge to that standard the jury won’t accept it, so I’m not going to charge the case despite an abundance of evidence, then we’re really making those gender stereotypes and biases the rule of law. As prosecutors, we have to step up and do better than that,” Germann said.
The 60-page class action complaint, which is being filed in federal court, lists the following entities as the defendants: city of Austin, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, former Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, former APD Chief Art Acevedo, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez and the county itself.
The lawsuit claims the three women were subjected to “policies, customs, and practices that discriminate against them based on their gender.”
The suit goes on to say the county failed to test DNA evidence for “years at a time” and “refused” to prosecute cases. According to the suit, less than 10 percent of sexual assault cases are prosecuted in Travis County every year.
KXAN reached out to District Attorney Moore on Friday, but she declined to comment.
When Moore was just a candidate, she said her number one priority was to restore the public confidence in the office. Since her election in November 2016, she has focused on a number of key areas. They include:
- The creation of a special civil rights unit. Moore said the focus would be on showing transparency to family members of people involved in police shootings.
- Moore has also focused on enhancing the prosecution of family and domestic violence cases by assigning a special family violence prosecutor to each of the eight district courts.
- The DA has also revamped the vehicular crimes special prosecutions unit, as Travis County continues to struggle with a rising number of vehicle fatalities.