Why was a rape victim interrogated as a crime suspect?

A woman reports she was raped at knifepoint in her apartment, but days later, after police question her about inconsistencies, she says she made the whole thing up. In "An Unbelievable Story of Rape," a project from the Marshall Project and ProPublica, reporters explore how two different police departments treated the investigation. Ken Armstrong of the Marshall Project joins Hari Sreenivasan.

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    Now, how one investigative journalism project is shining light on how police should handle rape investigations — and to Hari Sreenivasan.


    On August 11, 2008, an 18-year-old Washington woman reported she had been raped at knifepoint in her apartment. Days later, after police questioned her about inconsistencies in her story, the woman said she made the whole thing up.

    Except, there's more, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape" is the joint effort by two non-profit news organizations, The Marshall Project and ProPublica, to tell the tale of how two very different police departments treated the investigation.

    We are joined now by co-author Ken Armstrong, a staff writer for The Marshall Project. He joins from Seattle.

    So, Ken, I want to ask, I want to tell our audience that we are going to talk about the ends of this story as well f they hadn't read it yet. But what happens to this woman when she goes into a police department in Linwood, Washington, and tells them this she has been raped?

  • KEN ARMSTRONG, The Marshall Project:

    Well, she tells police that she was raped. And initially there is no indication that police doubt the truth of what she is telling them. But quickly, as soon as one day after, she reports being raped, doubts set in.

    And it really originates with the call that comes into the police station from the woman's foster mother. The foster mother says that she has questions about whether this had really happened. She wonders if maybe this was a bid for attention.

    With that one phone call, the focus of the investigation shifts. And instead of pursuing the evidence that is available to them, the detectives decide to confront the victim in this case, to confront Marie, about whether she, what she has reported has really happened. So, they bring her into the police station. And they interrogate her as a criminal suspect, instead of questioning her as a rape victim.

    And you know, she was 18 years old. She had no experience with police. In the face of this interrogation, she took what under the circumstances she considered to be the easiest way out, which was to say, "I lied about what had happened." So she, in essence, recanted everything that she had said on the morning of the rape. And as a result of that, she wound up being charged with filing a false police report.


    Now, this is all happening in Linwood, Washington. How does this connect to a case in Colorado?


    Well, after she admits to making the story up, she takes a plea deal in which she agrees to certain conditions which include the need to get counseling for lying about being raped. And she agrees to go on supervised probation for a year.

    Two and a half years later, two and a half years after she is charged with filing a false police report, a serial rapist is arrested in Colorado. And when police execute a search warrant, they find in his possession photographs which turn out to prove definitively that he had, indeed, raped Marie in Linwood two and a half years before.


    And then what happens, you know, this is a tale of two different police departments. But the police department in Washington got this wrong. What happened when they figured this out?


    It did. They were confronted with the fact that they had made a mistake of dramatic proportions. Not only had they not believed a woman who had, indeed been raped. They had gone further and they had punished her. They had filed a citation charging her with false reporting.

    So, they had to find her and go and tell her that she had been right all along. They now recognized that. And they tried to find out ways that they could prevent this from happening again. They ordered an independent review and external review to reconstruct the ways in which they had gone off the rails in this investigation.


    So, do police departments around the country keep track of how many rapes are reported, how many people recant this? Because it seems like in the general arc of domestic violence, that this would be a common occurrence, that people say, "yes, he hit me", something happened and they were perhaps intimidated by their attacker to say, "No, no, you know what, I'm not going to press charges, it wasn't rape, it was consensual."


    Yes. They do keep statistics. Local police departments report numbers to the FBI, but it can be a pretty murky data set. In general, what the FBI believes that about 5 percent of rape cases turn out to be unfounded. What's less clear is how often rape victims are subsequently charged with filing a false police report. That would be a fraction of that fraction, but it's an unknown number.


    So, why did the Colorado department behave so differently when they were tracking their suspect based on interviews that they had with victims, versus the Washington department?


    You know, the story proved to be a remarkable contrast in the dos and don'ts of investigating rape. Everything that the police in Washington did wrong, the police in Colorado did right.

    They listened to their victims. They pursue the evidence, chasing every lead. They coordinated with one another. And they didn't fall prey to stereotypes about how someone who is hurt should react.

    They recognize that people react in all kinds of different ways to trauma and they shouldn't fall prey to these misguided assumptions about somebody being un-credible simply because they are not hysterical, necessarily, or their body language in some ways seems off. The police in Colorado did a remarkable job of identifying and arresting Mark O'Leary.


    All right. You can read about the rapes in Colorado and the one in Washington, in a fantastic story. It's both on The Marshall Project Web site and in ProPublica Web site.

    Ken Armstrong, thanks so much for joining us.


    Thank you, Hari. Appreciate it.

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