Prosecuting sexual assault can be challenging, panelists say

Thursday, April 17, 2014 | 10:39 p.m. CDT; updated 10:49 p.m. CDT, Thursday, April 17, 2014

COLUMBIA — Sexual assault victims can find it difficult to continuously retell their stories to police, to doctors, to lawyers, to family, to friends, to strangers — sometimes leading them to dismiss legal recourse as too painful, panelists at a sexual violence forum said Thursday.

If a victim breaks down before going to trial, a perpetrator can escape with a lighter sentence through a plea deal, especially if the alternative is acquittal, said Steve Concannon, coordinating attorney of MU Student Legal Services.

More Sexual Assault Awareness Month events

The panel was a part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month programming at MU. Other Sexual Assault Awareness month events include:

Breaking Free: Survivors' messages and posters detailing a message about their experience will be displayed Tuesday in the lower level lounge of the MU Student Center.

Denim Day: Wear denim to support rape and sexual assault victims. Denim Day activities will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 24 on Lowry Mall.

Fifth Annual Freedom Walk: Register to walk against human trafficking. The walk will be at 2 p.m. April 27 at Stephens Lake Park.

Coverage of campus sexual assault

At the Columbia Missourian, our ongoing coverage of the problem of sexual assault aims to educate readers and encourage productive dialogue. Read our discussion guide here.

Concannon was one of four panelists who participated in the Sexual Assault Legal Panel held Thursday in Strickland Hall. He was joined by Donell Young, the director of student conduct at MU; Kayla Jackson, an intern at True North, the domestic and sexual violence resource center formerly called The Shelter; and Doug Schwandt, assistant chief of the MU Police Department.

Besides talking about how hard it is to resolve some sexual or domestic assault cases, the speakers also stressed that every circumstance is different and there is no cure-all.

UM System President Tim Wolfe issued an executive order April 8 compelling all university employees to report sexual violence unless they are legally barred from doing so. The order was prompted by a case involving MU swimmer Sasha Menu Courey. A report released Friday concluded that MU failed to act on allegations that the varsity swimmer had been raped.

When dealing with sexual assault cases, Schwandt said, people need to remember that "everyone has different needs and we need to make sure we're not just treating them all the same."

Sometimes, Schwandt said, a victim doesn't want to go to the police or just needs someone to talk to.

Another challenge is the reality of social norms. Young said society is prepared for cases that deal with sexual assault between strangers, but when it comes to a victim who knows his or her assailant and there was previous consent, it "blows people's minds."

Supervising editor is Adam Aton.

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