Despite federal grant to raise rates, Denver DA prosecutes only 29 percent of felony sex assaults

DENVER - If you're the victim of a sexual assault in Denver, chances are, your case won't be prosecuted. Additionally, CALL7 Investigator Keli Rabon has learned the Denver DA has known about its low prosecution rate for years, yet many victims are still prevented from having their day in court. 

In May, our CALL7 Investigation found the Denver DA prosecuted just 29 percent of felony sex assaults forwarded by police, turning down far more cases than other jurisdictions we surveyed in Colorado and across the nation.

When we asked Denver DA Mitch Morrissey about the low prosecution rate, he repeatedly refused our interview requests. Finally, Morrissey agreed to an off-camera meeting with CALL7, but when we showed up, Morrissey insisted that the only way he would speak to us was if he could record the conversation and CALL7 did not. CALL7 later obtained the videotaped meeting through the Colorado Open Records Act.

Morrissey said the prosecution rate isn't a problem, and insists his prosecutors aren't afraid to take on the tough cases.

"If we can bring these charges, we will bring these charges. There's no reluctance here. These are people who have tried some of the hardest sex assaults in this jurisdiction for decades," Morrissey said. 

But here's what he didn't say -- not only did he know his office had a problem prosecuting sex assaults, but we've now found that in 2009, Morrissey sought and received a $185,000 federal grant to improve those statistics -- the same statistics he told us didn't matter.

"We don't do it based on statistics. It's on a case by case analysis," Morrissey said.

"If you look at cases on a case by case basis, why are so many cases not being taken?" Rabon asked.

"Well, we review the cases with a standard of a reasonable likelihood of conviction," Morrissey said.

But we've also found, despite the grant's extra resources, the prosecution rates didn't improve -- they actually got worse. 35 percent of sex assaults were prosecuted in 2009. But by 2012, that prosecution rate dropped to 19 percent.

"Unfortunately, I think that can inadvertently communicate that we're not taking these cases seriously enough to file," says Janine D'Anniballe, a psychologist who oversees Boulder-based victim advocacy group, Moving to End Sexual Assault. "The tone is set by the person in charge." 

So where did the money go? Grant documents obtained by the CALL7 investigators show it funded a special prosecutor to review sex assault refusals, paid for training for Deputy DA's and police, and tracked prosecution statistics to gauge performance over 18 months.

"If you dedicate resources to improving the process internally, you would think that the acumen in the department would go up and the processes would improve," D'Anniballe said. "It probably gave a good start and it probably gave people some of the information and resources they need, but that alone isn't going to change prosecution rates or attitudes."

An attitude that then has a domino effect.

"Victims of sex assault are only going to come forward to report if they feel like their case is going to be taken seriously. And if there's an attitude or feeling of, 'Our DA's Office doesn't prosecute these cases,' it's going to keep victims from coming forward. And if victims don't come forward and there aren't successful prosecutions, that means more sex offenders in our community which I don't think anybody wants," D'Anniballe said.

At just 16 years old, Michelle says she was raped by two boys she thought were her friends.

"I was saying no, I was crying, I was begging for them to stop. And none of that seemed to matter," Michelle says. "I remember them saying, 'Dude maybe we should stop. We're raping her.' And the guy who was raping me saying, 'No, she's just emotional cause she's a virgin, she'll like it.'"

Michelle says it was a traumatic experience. But it became even more devastating when the Denver District Attorney's Office refused to prosecute her case.

"Speaking and not being heard was the most discouraging thing I'd ever dealt with. Wanting to move forward, having that courage and then being denied," Michelle said.

Michelle says it's frustrating and disappointing to hear an opportunity to prosecute more cases had the opposite effect. She questions what it will take to bring justice to sex assault victims still waiting for answers.

"The fact that that's happening to so many other people, this exact situation, these exact feelings of futility. That needs to change. That's not ok, at all," Michelle said.

CALL7 requested interviews with the Denver DA to discuss the grant and its effect on the prosecution rate, but he declined through his spokesperson.

D'Anniballe says Boulder has seen an improvement in its investigations and prosecution of sex assaults, after forming a "Sexual Assault Review Team." SARTs consist of advocates, police, and prosecutors that meet weekly to review cases to ensure that none fall through the cracks.

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If you have a news tip, or follow-up to this story, e-mail Keli Rabon. You can also connect with me on Facebook or through Twitter @KeliRabon.