Sexually Assaulted, Disbelieved, Prosecuted and Acquitted: Lessons from Washington County, Virginia

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Domestic Violence: The Common Denominator Behind Many Types of Crime

Time
10:00 – 11:30am PT

Date
February 9, 2022

Lisa Avalos
Dr. Lisa Avalos
Associate Professor of Law, Louisiana State University Paul M. Herbert Law Center
Carlton Hershman
Carlton Hershman
Detective (Ret), San Diego Police Department
Dyanie Bermeo
Dyanie Bermeo
Survivor
Melissa Hordichuk
Melissa Hordichuk
Executive Director and Managing Attorney
Access to Justice Project

Imagine that someone in your community is sexually assaulted, and her closest friend encourages her to report it to the police. At first, the police appear to be taking her seriously, but later the investigation stalls.  The  victim then gets a call from the police, asking her to come in to answer a few more questions.  That interview turns into an interrogation, and suddenly she is being accused of fabricating the assault.  The police pressure her to retract her allegations.  Desperate to get away from the officers, who are exacerbating her trauma, the victim recants.  The police use her recantation to charge her with false reporting.  The victim and her friend are in shock; this outcome never entered their minds.  

Inconceivable?  This nightmare scenario has happened to many victims including Dyanie Bermeo, a Dean’s List student at King University who was arrested on false reporting charges after reporting a sexual assault in Washington County, Virginia in October, 2020.  After being convicted in a bench trial, Ms. Bermeo was ultimately acquitted on appeal after her legal team persuaded the circuit court judge that the prosecution had failed to prove that Ms. Bermeo’s report was false.

Presenters Lisa Avalos and Carlton Hershman testified as expert witnesses in this case. They will discuss the case and their testimony, analyzing how poor policing practices led to unwarranted false reporting charges, and contrasting those with the best practices that should be used in such cases.  The presenters will draw attention to two core issues – how an incomplete investigation into the sexual assault led to poor results, and how improper pressure from officers can lead victims to falsely recant. The session will raise awareness about these wrongful prosecutions and will help other law enforcement agencies avoid the errors that led to charges against Ms. Bermeo.

Ms. Bermeo will speak about the impact that this ordeal has had on her, including the how the trauma from being arrested and prosecuted compounded the trauma from the actual sexual assault. She will also address the impact this experience had on her education, and how it nearly derailed her career plans.

The presenters will address the following issues:

  • What poor investigation practices can lead to false reporting charges?
  • Why is it important to avoid using deception with a sexual assault victim?
  • Why do sexual assault victims recant, and how are false recantations linked to law enforcement conduct?
  • What are the potential costs, to victims and to the community, of bringing false reporting charges against sexual assault victims?
  • What exposure to civil liability might a law enforcement agency have when they bring unwarranted false reporting charges?
  • Why was Ms. Bermeo ultimately acquitted, and what is the lesson for other law enforcement agencies?
  • What role can victim advocates play in helping to ensure that disbelieved victims are not prosecuted?

Participants will also learn about some of the resources available for sexual assault investigation that can help law enforcement avoid wrongful prosecutions of rape victims.

Objectives

At the conclusion of this webinar, participants will be better able to:

  • Identify some of the common ways that sexual assault investigations fail in cases where the complainant is prosecuted for false reporting.
  • Identify training materials from EVAWI and other sources which can be used to ensure through, evidence-based sexual assault investigations and also to make sure that victims are not prosecuted for false reporting.
  • Describe some of the risks involved in prosecuting sexual assault victims for false reporting, including risks to victims, to the law enforcement agency, and to the community as a whole.
  • Advocate for sexual assault victims facing false reporting charges, including those at risk for being charged and those fighting such charges.
  • Identify rape investigation best practices that can be raised with law enforcement personnel for adoption in local communities.

CONTINUING EDUCATION (NURSES ONLY)

EVAWI is approved by the California Board of Registered Nursing to provide Continuing Education contact hours for nurses (Provider #15641).

Registered Nurses may purchase 1.5 contact hours after completing this webinar.


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