Penn State panel: Consent, respect keys to curbing sex crimes

lfalce@centredaily.comApril 15, 2014 

The difficult topic of sex crimes was the subject at a forum Tuesday night at the Dickinson School of Law.

“We need to ask ourselves the difficult questions of why and how these crimes are happening,” said Courtney Kiehl, of Penn State’s Family Law Clinic.

The crimes are sexual assault, rape, indecent assault, the whole range of aggressive behavior that can encompass sexual situations. The forum was part of a continuing spotlight on the issues during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.

Sexual assault can happen anywhere, to anyone, but the panel agreed that college students are particularly susceptible.

“The issue usually comes down to consent,” said Audra Hixson, assistant director of the university’s Center for Women Students.

Penn State Police Detective Spencer Peters agrees, but takes it a step further.

“A lot of it comes down to respect,” he said. In investigations, he sees red flags in retrospect with an aggressor who doesn’t respect personal space, doesn’t respect boundaries, and doesn’t respect “no.”

Complicating consent, both the ability to give it and to interpret it, are drugs and alcohol. According to Peters, he has had only one sexual assault case where alcohol was not a factor.

After the crime, respect and consent are just as important as law enforcement, prosecutors and defense attorneys become involved.

“We talk a lot about the lack of reporting, but what isn’t talked about is how many (crimes) are reported but aren’t moved forward to prosecution,” Hixson said. “A lot of women aren’t prepared for the ugliness of it.”

Her office tries to put victims in control of the process, giving them information but letting them make decisions about what steps to take next. Peters agreed, saying he often gives victims at the hospital the opportunity to speak with an advocate to hear her options without him there before proceeding with a forensic examination because he knows that he has an agenda.

“If I explain myself, I’m biased. I want that evidence,” he said. But that might not be what the victim needs.

The ethics discussion didn’t just center on victims. Defense attorney and former prosecutor Sean McGraw talked about walking the line between defending an accused client and respecting the dignity of the person claiming to be victimized, something he said must be handled with “compassion for all involved.”

Hixson said she recently had a client in her office, hysterical because a defense attorney was having her followed by a private investigator. McGraw said he understood that tactic, having used social media accounts to refute a victim impact statement. It was not a popular idea with the audience, netting responses during a question and answer period.

“How do you deal with that?” asked one audience member.

“I think that what fueled my representation is that the sanctions to that person are going to be life-ending. They really are,” he said.

“Don’t you think that as a victim, going through something like this is life-ending, too?” she asked.

“Yes, I’m acutely aware,” he said.

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