Date: Oct. 16, 2014.
Title: Criminal Sexual Conduct.
Short description: Reports assault took place in Brainerd.
The words “reported” and “alleged” are common in any criminal complaint, but can stand out in an investigation of criminal sexual conduct.
They are used to acknowledge that nothing has been proven, a legal acknowledgment of the wait for due process.
But they also play into the issues surrounding sexual assault and rape. According to Sherry Shadley, Support Within Reach District 2 supervisor, only 2-6% of rapes and sexual assaults are false allegations.
And yet, when she speaks in front of groups to advocate against sexual assault and violence, Shadley often hears the crowd tell her 40%, 50% – sometimes as high as 80% – of allegations are false.
“Why is that reality (of false reporting) so much different from what the public believes?” Shadley asked. “They think that victims are making these reports to get revenge.”
Public belief, known as “rape culture,” plays a part in everything from getting a victim to report a rape to getting a county attorney to prosecute sexual assault cases, Shadley explained.
This is the story of one local woman and her journey, as well as the issues facing rape and sexual assault victims. It is the story of Michelle Johnson – and of advocates like Shadley, who know that cases like Johnson’s are far too common.
According to RAINN – the Rape and Incest National Network – an American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds.
Only five of every 1,000 perpetrators, though, will end up in prison.
One of every six American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Men are not immune, though the numbers are better – one in 33.
In Aitkin County in 2020, there were 15 reports of sexual criminal conduct – the official term for rape or sexual assault. Four of those cases resulted in charges being filed, one is still pending – and 10 were dismissed.
For Johnson, Oct. 15, 2014, is a date she cannot forget. What started as a casual evening out with a man she considered a friend turned into a nightmare.
According to RAINN, eight out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.
Johnson knows that was certainly the case with her. The man she went out with the night she claimed she was raped was an acquaintance, and they were both involved with other people at that time.
“I didn’t have an interest in him that way,” she said.
The two ended up going out for dinner in Brainerd, each paying for their meal. Johnson said they chatted and eventually went back to her apartment.
“We went to my place to hang out,” she said. She told him repeatedly that she did not want to have sex with him, which she later detailed to the police.
Johnson recalled him violating her privacy when she said he looked through her underwear drawer. From there, everything went sideways. Johnson said he backed her into her bedroom, pressuring her for sex.
She agreed to a single sex act, hoping that it would “shut him up.” When that was over, she said, “that’s it, no more” and tried to get up and out of the room, revoking consent per MN Statute 609.341, subdivision 4.
From there, Johnson was forced into having vaginal sex with the man.
After the assault, Johnson said the man got up and grabbed a towel for her – then started talking about how they should “do this again” sometime.
“I’m like, ‘are you (expletive) kidding me?’” Johnson remembered. “I didn’t want this to happen.
“He just thought it was funny.”
Though the man eventually left, Johnson said he made threats about people in the area that he could use to hurt her.
Eventually, she texted a friend. The friend asked if she was OK.
“I knew I wasn’t OK,” Johnson said. She also called her sister, Lisa Greiner, who lived two doors down in the apartment complex.
Greiner said she was in shock and angry when she found out.
“Seeing my sister so hurt and violated was very hard,” said Greiner. “I even recall messaging the guy as well and telling him how unhappy I was and how disgusting he was for doing that.
Eventually, a few hours later, she convinced Johnson to go to Essentia Health, St. Joseph’s Medical Center in Brainerd.
MAKING THE CASE
There likely is not a good time for anyone to be poked and prodded. However, for women who have been raped, their assault is followed by what is officially referred to as a “sexual assault forensic/evidentiary exam.”
The exam is designed to collect potential evidence for a case. Johnson was subjected to a full physical exam, during which she said “anything and everything” was swabbed. She also added that numerous vials of blood were taken.
Shadley explained that the exam can take four hours or more – and that is just the examination and an initial detailing of what happened. From there, if victims choose to go to the police, they will need to repeat the story.
“They are already humiliated, not to mention their physical pain,” Shadley said. “And then they have to tell one of the worst moments of their life over and over again.”
The report itself reads clinically cold, detailing the extent of sexual activity and details Johnson wishes she could forget.
Johnson admitted that when she initially spoke with police, she held back some details – including the fact that she consented to the one act.
She reached out a day or so later, though, feeling she had to tell the truth.
The police also reached out to the man who assaulted her, who told them the entire encounter was consensual.
“All the preconceived notions,” Johnson explained. “He said, she said.”
When hearing of Johnson’s story, Shadley admitted that it wasn’t unusual – neither in terms of trying to revoke consent nor in terms of it being someone Johnson knew.
“The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows,” Shadley confirmed. Those people can be friends, relatives, friends of friends.
It is a dangerous misconception, Shadley said, that rapes are most often committed by strangers.
“Society has taught us for so long about stranger danger,” she said. “Hollywood teaches us that the vast majority of rapes … (are) stranger rape. And it’s the exact opposite.”
Shadley also addressed one of the other common problems with rape – the brain’s ability to protect itself. She said it is common for victims to not remember every detail of the situation.
“Trauma interrupts how neurons are transmitted,” she explained. “Victims often can’t think in chronological order. They may not recall details until days later, months later, years later.”
She compared it to a shower cap being put on to keep someone’s hair dry – the brain rerouting signals so the victim doesn’t need to focus on the trauma itself.
“When interviewing sexual assault victims, law enforcement often believe a victim is lying if they can’t recall details of the rape,” Shadley said. When a victim can’t remember the time it occurred or a length of an assault or even where it happened, she explained, it then leads police to doubt a story.
There are also other problems with prosecuting a case. The burden in a rape case is “proof beyond a reasonable doubt.” In cases where a victim knows the offender – and the issue of the “he said, she said” of Johnson’s case – oftentimes results in no charges being filed.
Johnson’s rape took place in Crow Wing County. Aitkin County Attorney James Ratz weighed in, saying that credibility is a huge factor in deciding to file charges.
He also agreed that cases of “he said, she said” are difficult to prove. In those cases, he said, detectives often look to additional evidence, pulling cellphone records, looking to testing from the sexual assault “kit,” and victim credibility.
Ratz said that it is easy for testing to get backed up, however, sometimes taking as much as a year to process a rape kit. In Johnson’s case, it wasn’t even tested.
A few weeks after filing her report, Johnson received a letter from the Crow Wing County Attorney’s office saying they were declining to charge the man in the case.
“I ripped it up. I was pretty much like, ‘go figure,’” Johnson said. “I got pissed off, ripped it up and threw it in the garbage.
“It’s why I didn’t want to come forward in the first place. I knew nothing was going to happen,” she added. “If the guy said it’s consensual, there’s no point in testing it. That basically leaves it up to every guy can say it was consensual.”
INSULTS ON INJURY
The state of Minnesota has been addressing sexual criminal conduct laws over the last two years. It was a proposed bill – now signed into law – that brought Johnson back to her case.
KARE 11, the NBC affiliate in the Twin Cities, reported last year on a bill brought forth by State Rep. Marion O’Neill, that would require mandatory testing of all unrestricted rape kits – meaning kits that the victim permitted to test – a 30-month retention period of restricted kits, and an online database where victims can check the status of their kit or give consent for testing.
The reason for the change? A separate KARE 11 report in 2019 showed that police were not complying with state law that allowed victims to get information on their rape kits. Many didn’t even know if their kits were tested or not.
Many kits were also destroyed when the county attorney’s offices declined to charge an offender.
Johnson’s was among those destroyed – a fact she did not discover until KARE 11 contacted her for its story. Until then, she said, she had been holding out hope that her kit had been tested to put a profile in the system should the man who she said raped her did it to anyone else.
The law did pass, amid the insanity of COVID-19 in 2020. As of Jan. 1 of this year, all kits will be tested. Johnson said she now hopes, with the law on file to test all kits, that more women will be willing to come forward and endure the aftermath.
“People might be more willing to come forward now,” she said. “I think the changes that they’re putting into effect ... I think some women will still be afraid to come forward. There’s still the mentality, ‘well, if you allowed this to happen…’”
That change, however, may be offset by another recent Minnesota court ruling – one saying that if a victim voluntarily becomes intoxicated, they cannot be considered mentally incapacitated.
The ruling overturned a conviction against a North Minneapolis man, Francios Khalil, nearly four years after the court case. The case received national attention, and was met with universal outrage from women’s rights groups and advocates.
Shadley said that the decision “set us back 20 years or more.” In addition to cases where the victim knows the offender, the other situation where most county attorneys decline to charge is when alcohol or drugs are involved.
She explained that, in many cases, those same county attorneys are looking for “the perfect victim” – and no such thing exists because of the very nature of rape.
That is because rape isn’t about sex, she explained.
“It has everything to do with power and control,” Shadley explained. “Sexual predators are often sociopaths. They are very good at walking into a room and reading body language. They are looking for weakness.”
Rape culture, she added, is a huge part of the problem. People are not taught not to rape others – instead, women are taught how not to be raped.
“They are being taught by society that if you were assaulted, you did something to provoke it,” Shadley said.
MAKING A CHANGE
One of the major teaching points now, Shadley explained, is an initiative being brought forth by all sexual assault prevention advocates.
“There is now an international campaign called, ‘Start by Believing,’” said Shadley, referring back to the low numbers of false claims. “We need to stop blaming victims. We need to believe victims.
“We need to help them get the resources they need,” she added. “Most importantly, we need to hold offenders accountable.”
“It’s always scary for a woman to come forward,” Johnson added. “My story, he made an effort beforehand to put it into my head (to be afraid).
“I couldn’t even get out of my vehicle at night, coming home from work,” she added. “I was afraid people were going to jump me. You don’t know what people are capable of.”
Greiner, too, is hopeful that the new law will change attitudes.
“I’m still upset and angry to this day about what happened, especially after finding out that the police basically did nothing and destroyed her kit, giving her no chance at answers,” Greiner said. “We can’t change the past and we have to be thankful that other women have hope now.
“And I’m thankful she has been able to speak out and be a voice to help herself heal from this,” Greiner added.