While Saturday’s news that the jurors in Bill Cosby’s sexual assault trial had deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial was not a victory for sexual assault and abuse survivors, it did give the pubic a glimpse into the trauma and the victimization endured by survivors of these crimes.
Some legal experts opined that the jury deadlocked because the survivor wasn’t credible, that she changed her story, and that she continued to contact Cosby after the assault. On the surface, those sound like pretty convincing arguments to side with Cosby. However, anyone who has worked with sexual abuse survivors like I have knows that memory is fragile and does not always recall the details of events. That doesn’t mean the victim is not credible especially in cases that happened some time ago. Secondly, trauma affects memory in such a way that recall of a sexual assault may seem disjointed. Kathryn Gigler of Northwestern University published an article a few years ago about this phenomenon. She writes in part, “this situation affects pathways important for memory formation, which means that an individual can fail to correctly encode and store memories experienced during trauma. While an individual generally will remember the traumatic event itself (unless alcohol or drugs are present in the system), these memories will feel fragmented, and may take time to piece together in a way that makes narrative sense. Behavioral patterns in individuals who have experienced sexual violence mirror those seen in other traumatized populations, like combat veterans. This pattern of symptoms, known as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, can include emotional numbness, intrusive memories of the traumatic event, and hyperarousal (increased awareness of one’s surroundings, or constantly being “on guard”).”
Lest we forget, Cosby’s victim was indeed drugged prior to the sexual assault which will have a detrimental effect on memory and later recall. In Gigler’s article, she opens by recalling an interview conducted by a police detective who concludes that an alleged assault victim is lying after listening to her try to recall the event. Gigler comes to a different conclusion based on her studies of trauma on sexual assault victims. She writes, “Therefore, the detective who was unable to believe the story told to him by my crisis caller was likely misinterpreting the discrepancies in her story as lies, rather than as her brain’s responses to extreme trauma. Best practices now suggest that officers wait at least two sleep cycles, generally 48 hours, before interviewing a victim of sexual violence. Additionally, the interview should be handled in a victim-centered manner, not as an interrogation. Research-informed practices have the potential for not only better outcomes for survivors of sexual violence, but also for reporting and prosecution rates for our legal system.”
Finally, one legal scholar concluded that the survivor was unreliable given that she continued to contact Cosby after the assault. However, sexual assault trauma victims often behave in this fashion. I have represented many courageous survivors of Catholic priest abuse who continued to stay in touch with their perpetrator after the initial assault. This does not make the survivor unreliable and this phenomenon is not anomalous. Therapy and healing for sexual assault survivors is complex and fraught with contradictory emotions and behaviors including self-loathing and even sometimes feeling temporary sympathy for the predator.
Sexual assault and abuse cases are not black and white. Rather, they are layered with issues that must be addressed before healing takes place. In a similar vein, our criminal justice system would do well to understand all of these factors and proceed accordingly and cautiously when handling a sexual assault case.
Photo Credit via USA Today