The prosecuting attorney handling the rape case involving Leah Sharon Francis, a 22-year-old Stanford student from Juneau who publicly came out as a rape survivor after she was allegedly attacked in Juneau over Christmas break, is declining to bring charges in the case.
Juneau District Attorney James Scott announced his decision to the Empire on Friday, citing insufficient evidence to prove to a jury that a sexual assault occurred as outlined in the law under Alaska state statutes.
“There’s absolutely nothing about the screening decision that suggests that Ms. Francis’ genuine feelings of victimization aren’t valid,” Scott said in a phone interview. “It’s simply that in order to convince 12 people beyond a reasonable doubt that a sexual assault occurred, I have to be able to prove every element (of the crime). And in this case, I can’t.”
The decision has outraged Francis, who sparked a national media storm this spring when she criticized Stanford University for its lenient sanctions against her attacker, who also is from Juneau and attends Stanford. But she doesn’t blame the DA; she blames the criminal justice system and the way the laws are written in Alaska.
“I’ve been failed by the system,” she said in phone interview from California on Friday. “This is the reason why rapists don’t go to jail.”
Francis said she was attacked by an ex-boyfriend on New Year’s Eve in Juneau. She said she’d been drinking downtown and ran into him while she was walking home on the Juneau-Douglas bridge. Since it was someone she trusted, she asked to spend the night at his house. They had fallen asleep in his bed, and when she awoke, the assault was already underway. The tampon she had in was crushed inside her cervix. She said she was pinned down on the bed and couldn’t move, and was in such shock that she couldn’t speak.
The problem is under Alaska law, the person being raped has to verbally say ‘No,’ or do something such as fight back to indicate lack of consent. There are exceptions to that, including being incapacitated, which includes being “black-out” drunk, which Francis was not.
“Under the law in the state of Alaska, the standard that applies is that the person accused of rape has to recklessly disregard a lack of consent,” Scott explained. “So in other words, the person who is being sexually assaulted has to say ‘no’ or otherwise communicate lack of consent. If they don’t communicate lack of consent, then we look at the circumstances to say, ‘Well, was it obvious that she wasn’t consenting?’ In this case, we do not have sufficient evidence to overcome the fact that we would have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the suspect recklessly disregarded her lack of consent.”
The defense attorney hired to represent the accused, who has not been named by authorities since he is not charged with a crime (or by Francis, who could face legal action if she did), said the decision was appropriate because her client is innocent.
“It’s very, very frustrating, it really is,” defense attorney Kirstin Swanson said, adding her client and his family has “been through hell” since Francis went public with her story. “I mean, I don’t usually go around calling my clients innocent because most of my clients are not innocent. So, I don’t play that game, and I don’t go around being a true believer and saying, ‘Oh, yeah, all my clients are innocent,’ because that’s not true. But this is a case where ... there was no sexual assault.”
Swanson said her client had consensual sex with Francis that night.
“It was clearly consensual sex,” she said.
Swanson listed off several reasons why she thought so: Francis had gotten into his bed that night wearing just her underwear; she didn’t say no or fight; she stayed the night and hung out with the family in the days following the incident; she waited four or five days to report it to police and to get a rape kit done; they had an on-again, off-again relationship.
All of this is victim blaming, Francis said firmly, meant to detract from the fact that the man forced himself on her and raped her. She said staunchly that they were not in an on-again, off-again relationship. Yes, she had taken off most her clothes when she got into bed with him that night because they were soaking wet from walking home in the rain; it does not mean she consented to have sex, she said. She didn’t say ‘no’ when she awoke during the assault because she was shocked and confused.
“I couldn’t get a word out,” she elaborated. “I couldn’t speak, and I couldn’t fight, and since I was in my underwear, and there’s so many victim-blaming things that people can hold onto, he (the DA) was like, ‘I can’t convince a jury.’”
As for socializing with the man and his family afterward, Francis said that’s true also — but because she didn’t know what else to do. She had been close with the family for years and considered them her family, she said.
“Nobody should be criticizing what I did before or after this until they’re raped by someone they know and trust,” she said of her decision to see him and his family after the rape. “I was in total shock. They invited me over for dinner, I think, because they wanted to patch things up and they were concerned I was going to ruin their son’s life.”
Francis said she later confronted him at a park and he told her that it was “both our fault.”
“He was basically saying, ‘If you didn’t want to have sex, then you shouldn’t have gotten into my bed,’ and that’s basically what the jury will say,” she said dejectedly. “It’s true I was in my underwear in the bed. It’s like OK, well, my dress was wet, and I was really cold, and I was wandering around in the rain, and it was someone I trusted. I just figured I would be OK. It doesn’t mean I wanted to have sex.”
The accused man’s family on Saturday issued a statement through their attorney, Swanson. It said the decision reached by the DA was correct since no crime was committed, and that media outlets “fanned the accusations” that stemmed from the Stanford investigation for their own political agendas.
“While the Juneau Police were investigating the allegations, Stanford did their own civil investigation of an event that occurred off-campus, thousands of miles away,” the statement read in part. “Universities lack the investigative capabilities and experience of law enforcement agencies, and are ill suited to handle a case like this one. Unfortunately, Stanford enabled false accusations and their faulty decision gave the accuser undue credibility.”
By phone on Friday, Swanson accused Francis of changing her story over time to “improve” it. DA Scott said the information he received showed that the statements Francis made when she first reported the incident to police were consistent with what she told Stanford investigators.
Francis said previously the man she accused of raping her has offered up multiple defenses for what happened that night, including that he did not have sex with her, but that if he did, he was asleep during it. That’s a reference to what’s called “sexsomnia,” a supposed sleep condition where someone expresses uncontrolled sexual aggression while sleeping.
“What’s so shocking to me is he has two totally different stories that are out there, neither of which are true,” she said Friday. “And I’m like, can someone tell two different stories about something this serious and get away with it?”
Francis said her life has fallen apart after what happened in Juneau. Back at school, she fell behind in her coursework and didn’t graduate on time as she dealt with the trauma, which included panic attacks. Since going public Francis said she’s received threats from people in Juneau and feels like no one believes her. The decision not to charge her attacker emphasized that further, she said.
“It’s just like I’ve already been so invalidated,” she said. “This horrific (stuff) has happened to me, and I feel like no one gives a sh*t. I can’t believe he’s not in jail, I really can’t believe he’s not in jail. And he’s not going to be in jail. And people defend him. People I know. When they talk to me, they ask questions that are victim blaming. They’re like, ‘But what about this? What about that? Are you sure? It’s a big decision. You could hurt his life.’ And I’m like, do you realize he’s already ruined my life?”
DA Scott said he knew his charging decision was not going to go over well with Francis, but that he is bound by the confines of the law.
“I know this will make people very unhappy,” he said. “I never want to make people unhappy, but we’re obligated to do what the law and the facts require.”