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Minnesota rape survivors call for changes in wake of sexual assault report

ST. PAUL—Rape isn't being taken seriously ​enough in Minnesota.

That assertion by some rape survivors and advocates came Monday in the wake of a media report that found systemic problems in the way sexual assaults are investigated and prosecuted in Minnesota.

The report by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune prompted a leading Republican lawmaker to pledge hearings at the Capitol and at least one DFL candidate for governor to issue a call for a task force.

The newspaper reviewed more than 1,000 sexual assault cases from a two-year period in Minnesota, ranging from St. Paul to Moorhead.

Here's what the report found:

• In nearly a quarter of the cases, police never assigned an investigator.

• In half, they didn't interview potential witnesses.

• About 75 percent of the cases were never forwarded to prosecutors for criminal charges.

• In all, fewer that 10 percent of reported sexual assaults resulted in a conviction.

In interviews, survivors detailed ways that the criminal justice system failed them, from police officers whose questioning led the victim to feel interrogated, to leads they provided that were never acted upon by investigators.

The stories sounded all too familiar to Sarah Super and Abby Honold, two survivors -turned-advocates.

In 2015, Super was raped at knifepoint by her ex-boyfriend, who broke into in her St. Paul apartment and hid in a closet. She escaped and called 911.

Days later, after she felt safe enough to return home and knowing the police investigation was well under way and the suspect was in custody, she was disturbed by what she found in her closet: a roll of duct tape, a face mask and gloves, bottle of Nyquil and a hand-written note saying he would gut her "head-to-toe," and "bedsheets, perhaps, to carry my body," Super said Monday.

"The police had never searched my closet," she said. "It was I, days later, who called them again to ask, 'Isn't this evidence important?' " It was. Alec E. Neal was convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and is serving a 12-year sentence.

"The system worked for me, as it almost never does for others," Super said.

Honold, who was raped by a student at the University of Minnesota in 2014, didn't see justice for more than a year and only after she had waged a public campaign and a campus police officer took extraordinary lengths to catch her attacker, who had been set free with little chance of being charged.

"I did all the things I was supposed to do," Honold said Monday. But still, she said, "I was accused of being a false accuser." In 2016, Daniel Drill-Mellum was sentenced to six years in prison for the crime.

Super and Honold said when they speak to other survivors, they frequently hear similar tales—but often without the conclusion of the rapist being prosecuted.

In response to reporters' questions, they both agreed that more money is needed to hire qualified and trained investigators to focus on sexual crimes, but they also said they believed a shift in attitude is needed among law enforcement.

"Unfortunately, what the article reveals is not surprising," said Teri McLaughlin, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition of Sexual Assault. "I think even deeper than attitude is the culture, the normalization of response—the blaming and shaming of victims that we've seen for years. We want to see this as an opportunity to look at the system and see what we can do to improve."

Lawmaker promises hearing

Police organizations and officials noted to the Star-Tribune that rape cases are notoriously difficult to prosecute, and more resources are needed to do a better job.

Currently, every homicide is assigned to an investigator across all police departments, but that's not always the case with rapes. Nate Gove, the executive director of the Minnesota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board (POST), told the paper that a directive from the Legislature would be needed to strengthen standards for how police investigate sexual assault.

It's unclear what the appetite for that is at the Capitol, but on Monday Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said he'll lead hearings into the issue.

"It's indefensible that cases like these, with ample evidence, would go uninvestigated," Limmer said in a statement. "As chairman of the state senate's public safety committee, I can personally assure you the legislature will be digging deeper in public hearings to find out why Minnesota's law enforcement agencies have failed so many women, and what can be done to ensure justice for sexual assault victims."

Candidates weigh in

Super and Honold spoke Monday at a news conference of state Rep. Erin Murphy of St. Paul, who's running for governor in a tight three-way Democratic-Farmer-Labor party primary against U.S. Rep. Tim Walz and state Attorney General Lori Swanson.

Saying the Star-Tribune report revealed a "systemic crisis," Murphy said she wants to create a task force that will evaluate how effective Minnesota is at investigating sexual assault cases, and she wants to see a standard adopted that will lead to an investigator assigned to every case—a proposition she acknowledged will require taxpayer dollars, although she didn't offer specifics.

Swanson issued the following statement: "These reports are very troubling. When women report sexual assault it must be taken with the utmost seriousness and fully investigated. Failing to interview witnesses or follow up on key evidence is simply inexcusable."

In a statement, Walz said he wants to see state legislation "to ensure law enforcement has the skills and resources to avoid re-traumatization and effectively see investigations through to prosecution." The idea mirrors a bipartisan federal reform on how investigators are trained that Honold has been pushing for several years. It's known as the Abby Honold Act, and Walz is a co-sponsor.

Former Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who's running in the Republican primary for governor, said standards should change.

"Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors need to focus on better investigation and prosecution of these violent offenders," Pawlenty said, in part, in a statement. "The POST Board should develop statewide standards for sexual assault investigations. ... We need to ensure that justice is delivered for victims of sexual assault."

Hennepin County Commissioner Jeff Johnson, who's running against Pawlenty in the Republican primary, did not return a request for comment by deadline.