“The victim is often familiar with the suspect in most of the cases we investigate,” said Norwalk Police Chief Mike Conney, noting that about 30 cases a year are reported to the local department.
Huron County Common Pleas Judge Jim Conway agreed, noting it’s unusual for the defendant in sex crime cases that come before him to be a stranger.
“I would say for most of the cases that come in front of us that involve sexual abuse, the victim and the defendant would know each other in some fashion or other. It’s unusual for it to be a complete stranger, although we have had cases where that is the case,” he said. “It would be more unlikely for it to be a stranger.”
Conway said it would be advantageous from a prosecutor’s point of view for sexual assaults to be reported in a timely fashion since “they could build a better case.”
“But we have had cases where the reporting has come in years after the event and there are still instances where those cases are prosecuted,” the judge added.
In sexual assaults investigated by Norwalk police, “for the most part, victims report in a timely manner,” Conney said.
“It is rare to have a case reported many years after the offense was alleged to have happened, but not unheard of,” the chief added.
While most cases investigated in Norwalk are reported in a timely manner, according to the 2017 Community Health Assessment, most sexual assaults aren’t reported at all. Of those people who were forced into sexual activity, only 12 percent said they reported it.
Renee Leber, a therapist for Fisher-Titus Behavioral Health, told the Reflector she suspects there are plenty more people who haven’t mustered the courage yet to speak about their experiences.
“I think many survivors of sexual abuse are coming forward seeking services as there has been a public movement on removing the stigma surrounding this topic,” she added. “However, I don't think it accurately reflects the number of cases that have occurred.”
Conney was asked about the statute of limitations on starting an investigation of a suspected sex crime.
“Rape and sexual battery have a 25-year statute of limitations. Unlawful sexual conduct with a minor, gross sexual imposition and compelling prostitution have a 20-year statute of limitations. Felonies generally have a six-year statute of limitations. Misdemeanors have a two-year statute of limitations. Minor misdemeanors have a six-month statute of limitations. Aggravated murder and murder have no statute of limitations. Even though the 25-year statute of limitations may have passed on a rape or sexual battery offense, a positive DNA match will give law enforcement five years from said discovery of the match to prosecute,” the police chief said.
‘Violent sex offenses’ increasing
In court, Conway said he has been seeing an increase in “violent sex offenses” — rape, sexual battery and gross sexual imposition — presented to grand juries over the last several years.
“The increase in the number of rapes, clearly the most severe of the sexual offenses, is going up,” the judge added. “Rape would be forcible sexual conduct.”
There are 13 different types of sexual battery, according to the Ohio Revised Code.
Some of those are defined as: When someone coerces a person to submit by any means that would be considered resistance by any normal person where the victim’s conduct is impaired; when the victim submits to the sex act because he or she is unaware the act is being committed (i.e. unconscious); when the offender is the victim’s natural parent, adopted parent, step-parent, guardian, custodian or parental figure when the victim is a patient in a hospital or institution; and when the offender has a supervisory or disciplinary authority over the victim.
An emerging trend is the suspect and victim communicating by social media and/or texting before the offense.
“I would say the trend over the last 10 years is that many of the folks now have met or communicated in some sort of social media aspect. That’s more of a new twist from when I was a prosecutor,” Conway said.
During a seven-day local rape trial, a victim testified she heard of defendant McClain L. Durst through Facebook. One victim, who was 15 at the time, said she and Durst exchanged text messages and he told her he wanted to date her. She also testified she asked Durst for a ride home the night of July 5, 2017 and he asked for sex in return and according to text messages shown in court, the girl agreed.
A jury convicted the 29-year-old Sandusky man of 11 sex-related felonies and he later was sentenced to 33 years in prison. Durst’s importuning convictions were for using text messages to solicit and “groom” the victims for sex before he raped them.
Sex crimes and DNA
While Conway isn’t seeing one local law enforcement agency handling more rape complaints than others, the judge said it’s typical for authorities to bring in agents with the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) to help follow up with their investigations.
“They do a lot with the forensics that has to be performed — DNA requests, those type of things,” Conway said, referring to processing items such as clothing. “They play a pretty big role in any case that goes to trial.”
The judge was asked about the role of a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE).
“The SANE nurse is solely tied into the reporting victim, typically at the time of the incident being reported. They would collect evidence that would later be submitted to BCI for that type of testing. They also would take information for medical use, as far as treatment as well. They have special training in how to collect evidence at the time the incidents occur and how to preserve those (items) so they can be used by investigators as the proceedings go forward,” Conway said.
“They have additional training on top of their regular degree for nursing.”
The judge was asked how common it is for DNA to be presented as evidence in trials.
“Every case is different, but a lot of DNA evidence would depend on what type of activity took place (and) when it took place in relation to when it was reported,” Conway said.
During the Durst rape trial, Huron County Public Defender David Longo told jurors the state didn’t present any DNA evidence and none of the four victims were treated by a SANE nurse.
In the circumstances of plea deals for sex crimes, Conway said “it would depend on the strength of the state’s case (and) the victim’s attitude toward any sort of resolution short of a trial.”
“The plea bargaining is really left between the state and defendants in most cases. I do have the ability (to interrupt) at some point when it’s completely inappropriate to approve a plea deal,” the judge added. “I can say that from the cases that come before the court, there is a higher likelihood, certainly, of going to trial on cases that involve sexual abuse than there are in other areas.”
Conney was asked what are the biggest challenges in police investigating and/or substantiating the allegations of sexual assault.
“One of the biggest challenges is the collection of physical evidence in cases where there is a delay in reporting. The more time that passes, the greater the chance physical evidence will be lost,” the chief said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Reflector staff writer Zoe Greszler contributed to this story.