Chicago State University police Chief Ronnie Watson was convinced he had a rape case on his hands in the early morning hours of Feb. 20, 2010.
An 18-year-old freshman reported being attacked by a fellow student after going to his dorm room to listen to music a few hours earlier. When she rejected his advances, he flipped her on her stomach, clapped his hand over her mouth and attacked her, she told police. Records show that abrasions on her body were consistent with her allegation.
Over the next 36 hours, Chicago State police aggressively investigated the case. They secured the crime scene, interviewed witnesses, took the student to a hospital for a DNA evidence kit and interrogated the accused. After a Cook County prosecutor said she could not approve felony charges unless the student and other witnesses picked the suspect out of a lineup, the department arranged for one.
In the end, the prosecutor declined to charge the suspect with felony sexual assault and suggested the officers arrest him on a less serious misdemeanor battery charge. The case, however, would still be prosecuted with the same set of facts that appear to describe a rape — that the suspect sexually penetrated her against her will.
"The (assistant) state's attorney came, and she was as cold as ice — she wouldn't budge," Watson said. "It's horrible that we couldn't get a rape charge, but I'm glad we got something."
The Chicago State outcome is not uncommon.
prosecutors rarely file felony charges against students accused of sexual violence on college campuses, according to a Tribune analysis. A survey of 16 local colleges found that police investigated 109 reported sex crimes since fall 2005, with 12 resulting in arrests and five in convictions. Two of the arrests — including a 2011 rape allegation at
in suburban River Forest — have not gone to trial.
The most common type of assault in a university setting is a student-on-student attack, and only two of the five felony charges fit that description. The others were men who, in three incidents, were accused of raping a woman after breaking into campus housing.
State case, the Cook County state's attorney's office did not file a felony charge because of what it now describes as "inconsistencies in the evidence." Those inconsistencies, however, did not stop the office from prosecuting Lazarrick Chambers, a 25-year-old student, for a misdemeanor crime for inserting "his penis in the anus (of the victim) without consent," court records show.
The victim, now 20 and attending college downstate, believes prosecutors failed her.
"He should have been charged with a felony," she said. Prosecutors "didn't make a big deal about it. It was a big deal to me."
Chambers — whose criminal history included theft, drug possession and public indecency — was convicted at trial four months after the attack and sentenced to 250 days in jail.
Prosecutors also recommended a misdemeanor charge in a 2009 Dominican University case in which a 20-year-old student accused a classmate of forcing her to perform a sex act on him, records show. Anthowan Love, a member of the basketball team, was convicted of battery five months later and sentenced to community service and given a $275 fine.
And prosecutors declined to file felony charges in a 2009 case in which a
woman accused a former boyfriend of raping her in her dorm room. According to police records, the prosecutor rejected a felony charge because there was "no corroboration of evidence, there were no visible signs of a struggle and due to the fact they had a prior relationship."
The prosecutor told the woman she could still pursue a misdemeanor charge — an option the woman declined, police records show.
Though the cases deal in the same set of facts listed in the criminal sexual assault investigations, the battery charge is typically far less punitive. A guilty verdict does not lead to extensive prison time, sex offender registration or the stigma of being a convicted felon.
Victim advocates often view the downgrading of sex offenses to misdemeanor cases as an insult to the victim and the horrific nature of the crime. A battery charge may be easier to prosecute, they say, but it ultimately masks the prevalence of sexual assault in society.
"A misdemeanor battery is the same charge you'd get if you punched someone in the face," said Sharmili Majmudar, executive director of Chicago-based Rape Victim Advocates. "To have any kind of conviction is something positive, I can't deny that. But it's such a qualified success. We'd like to see more felony charges."
Cook County State's Attorney
was unavailable to discuss the Tribune's findings,
the most extensive examination done of her and her predecessor Richard Devine's record in college sex cases.
Alvarez's spokeswoman, Sally Daly, defended the office's handling of campus sex offenses, saying prosecutors carefully review each case and in September began looking more closely at misdemeanor sex crimes to see if they should be upgraded to felonies. Calling non-stranger sexual assaults "among the most challenging to effectively prosecute," she said the office is working with university administrators and law enforcement to make them aware of the evidence needed for these types of prosecutions.
"Generally speaking, we cannot approve felony charges unless we are confident that we can sustain our burden of proof," Daly said in a written response to Tribune questions. "Factors that may prevent us from meeting our burden of proof and prevent us from approving felony charges include cases where there is little or no corroboration to the accounts of the complaining witness or inconsistencies in the accounts provided by the complaining witness."
Cook County prosecutors are not the only ones to struggle with forcible sex offenses on college campuses.
The Tribune reported earlier this year that women who report sexual violence on campuses rarely see their attackers arrested and almost never see them convicted. A June survey of six schools in Illinois and Indiana found police investigated 171 reported sex crimes since fall 2005, with 12 resulting in arrests and four in convictions. Only one of the convictions stemmed from a student-on-student attack.
The arrest and conviction rates in the Midwest and Cook County surveys were far below the average for rapes reported nationally.
For its latest analysis, the Tribune focused solely on Cook County and selected public and private four-year colleges with campus housing. The survey did not include stand-alone graduate schools, medical schools or seminaries.
The Tribune compiled its information from law enforcement and crime data that schools must report under federal law, then confirmed the numbers with college administrators, prosecutors, police and court officials.
The data represent only a sampling of total sex offenses involving students because many who attend Chicago-area colleges live off-campus. As such, their reports are not automatically tracked by administrators or police as crimes involving students.
Some colleges reluctantly provided the Tribune with information, even as schools such as Marquette and
come under scrutiny for concealing campus sex-crime cases.
St. Xavier University on the city's Southwest Side initially declined to provide information about the six reported sex offenses on its campus since 2005, such as location and date of the incidents.
"We talk to our students. We talk to our parents," said Karla Thomas, St. Xavier's spokeswoman. "For reporters who are scooping for a story, no we don't. We are not obligated to do that."
The university eventually provided skeleton information as required by law but did not provide names of two people arrested in those cases, or police report numbers that would enable the Tribune to track what happened. All of the other universities contacted by the Tribune provided report numbers when asked.
With information provided by the state's attorney's office, the Tribune was able to learn that in the one St. Xavier incident that went to trial, a 17-year-old student was accused of felony sexual assault on charges he attacked a 17-year-old classmate while she was asleep in a dorm room in September 2010. The accused student was found not guilty in April after a one-day bench trial.
Federal law requires that students have the option of pursuing their cases with college administrations, rather than endure police investigations. Administrative hearings provide students with a private, less demanding counterpart to the criminal justice system — though national studies suggest women who opt for the internal process face disappointing outcomes nearly as often as those who go through law enforcement.
Records reviewed by the Tribune show that women sometimes are reluctant to pursue criminal charges.
"We are making sure students know about their reporting options," said Stephanie Atella, a health educator at
, where there had been 17 reported sexual attacks since 2005 and no arrests. "We would like to see an increase in reporting these crimes so perpetrators can be held accountable."
By their very nature, campus sex crimes are difficult cases to investigate and prosecute. They often involve acquaintances, alcohol and conflicting accounts of whether the physical interaction was consensual, making it difficult for law enforcement to sort out the truth.
River Forest police Chief Gregory Weiss acknowledged those difficulties in May when announcing the arrest of Xavier Patterson, a 24-year-old former member of the Dominican University basketball team, on sexual assault charges.
A 19-year-old student told authorities she had allowed Patterson, an acquaintance, in her dorm room while she was studying for finals. The two fell asleep in the same bed and the woman woke up to find Patterson assaulting her, according to law enforcement records.
Patterson allegedly made an admission to River Forest police, which made it easier for prosecutors to approve felony charges, sources said.
Patterson, who has pleaded not guilty, could not be reached for comment and no longer attends Dominican. His case is pending.
"These types of cases are often difficult to investigate, typically (because) it becomes one person's word against the other's," Weiss said when announcing the arrest. "We as police officers have a duty to make sure we conduct an impartial investigation."
The Tribune first raised questions about the state's attorney office's handling of campus sex crimes in June, after discovering the University of Illinois at Chicago noted in a report to the federal government that "it has been very difficult to get sexual assault cases" prosecuted.
Alvarez privately responded to the concerns in July by appointing a new supervisor in the sex crimes unit. Two months later, her office officially began tracking all campus assaults considered for felony charges in an effort to provide more specialized attention.
Victim advocates and campus security experts believe the initiative could be the first of its kind in the country.
Alvarez's spokeswoman said that in addition to tracking sex offenses on campuses, prosecutors now provide advanced training to campus police and school administrators on acquaintance sexual assaults.
The office also is improving its communication with colleges as the sex-crimes unit supervisor plans to meet with the Chicagoland Consortium for Safety on College Campuses, a new coalition of schools that includes UIC, DePaul and Northwestern, Daly said.
"We intend to maintain an ongoing relationship with this group and other colleges throughout the county," she said. "The goal here is to encourage universities to call our office and rely on the services of our office in the handling of sex assault cases on campuses."
Since it began tracking cases Sept. 1, the office has not received any calls about sex crimes from campus police, Daly said.
Rebecca Gordon, the UIC official who earlier raised concerns about prosecutors' seeming reluctance to pursue charges in campus sex crimes, praised Alvarez's new initiatives. UIC police investigated 16 sexual assault reports in the last six years, resulting in two misdemeanor arrests and no convictions, the Tribune's analysis shows.
"I am heartened because I feel through stronger relationships we will work on the system barriers that keep these cases from making it to court," said Gordon, director of UIC's Women's Leadership Resource Center and the Campus Advocacy Network.
Alvarez's efforts come as the Obama administration launched an initiative this year to push educators, police and others to aggressively pursue reports of sexual violence on campuses, where nearly 1 in 5 women will be a victim of an attempted or actual sexual assault during their college careers, according to the
Tribune reporter Jason Meisner contributed.