An Unbelievable Story of Rape

Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller, An Unbelievable Story of Rape. The Marshall Project (Ken Armstrong) and ProPublica (T. Christian Miller), 16 December 2015. An 18-year-old said she was attacked at knifepoint. Then she said she made it up. That’s where our story begins.” “‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape’ is the account of a failed police investigation and the trail of hurt and humiliation that followed. This 12,000-word piece tells the story of a young woman who reported being raped at knifepoint in her apartment, only to be disbelieved by police, and later prosecuted for lying to the authorities. Years later, two relentless female detectives in Colorado arrested a man suspected of raping a series of women and discovered that the original victim was telling the truth all along.”

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting.

Winner of the 2015 George Polk Award for Justice Reporting.


[Marie] was 18 years old [in 2009], charged with a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail.

Rarely do misdemeanors draw notice. Her case was one of 4,859 filed in 2008 in Lynnwood Municipal Court, a place where the judge says the goal is “to correct behavior — to make Lynnwood a better, safer, healthier place to live, work, shop and visit.”

But her misdemeanor had made the news, and made her an object of curiosity or, worse, scorn. It had cost her the newfound independence she was savoring after a life in foster homes. It had cost her sense of worth. Each ring of the phone seemed to announce another friendship, lost. A friend from 10th grade called to ask: How could you lie about something like that? Marie — that’s her middle name, Marie — didn’t say anything. She just listened, then hung up. Even her foster parents now doubted her. She doubted herself, wondering if there was something in her that needed to be fixed.

She had reported being raped in her apartment by a man who had bound and gagged her. Then, confronted by police with inconsistencies in her story, she had conceded it might have been a dream. Then she admitted making the story up. One TV newscast announced, “A Western Washington woman has confessed that she cried wolf when it came to her rape she reported earlier this week.” She had been charged with filing a false report, which is why she was here today, to accept or turn down a plea deal.

Her lawyer was surprised she had been charged. Her story hadn’t hurt anyone — no suspects arrested, or even questioned. His guess was, the police felt used. They don’t appreciate having their time wasted.

The prosecution’s offer was this: If she met certain conditions for the next year, the charge would be dropped. She would need to get mental health counseling for her lying. She would need to go on supervised probation. She would need to keep straight, breaking no more laws. And she would have to pay $500 to cover the court’s costs.

Marie wanted this behind her.

She took the deal….

[Detective Stacy] Galbraith [in Golden, Colorado] often volunteered to take rape cases. She was a wife, a mother. She was good at empathizing with the victims, who were overwhelmingly women. Most had been assaulted by a boyfriend, an old flame, or someone they had met at a club. Those investigations often boiled down to an issue of consent. Had the woman said “yes”? They were tough for cops and prosecutors. Juries were hesitant to throw someone in prison when it was one person’s word against another’s. Rapes by strangers were uncommon — about 13 percent of cases. But there was still the issue of the woman’s story. Was she telling the truth? Or fabricating a ruse to cover a sexual encounter gone wrong?

In that way, rape cases were unlike most other crimes. The credibility of the victim was often on trial as much as the guilt of the accused. And on the long, fraught trail between crime and conviction, the first triers of fact were the cops. An investigating officer had to figure out if the victim was telling the truth.

Galbraith had a simple rule: listen and verify. “A lot of times people say, ‘Believe your victim, believe your victim,’” Galbraith said. “But I don’t think that that’s the right standpoint. I think it’s listen to your victim. And then corroborate or refute based on how things go.”…

Cops can be protective about their cases, fearing that information could be leaked that would jeopardize their investigations. They often don’t know about, or fail to use, an FBI database created years ago to help catch repeat offenders. Between one-fourth to two-thirds of rapists are serial attackers, studies show….

The average law enforcement agency in America is about 13 percent female. Police ranks remain overwhelmingly male, often hierarchical and militaristic….

By the time Marie reported being assaulted, sex crime specialists had developed protocols that recognized the challenges and sensitivity of investigating rape cases. These guidelines, available to all police departments, detailed common missteps.

Investigators, one guide advised, should not assume that a true victim will be hysterical rather than calm; able to show clear signs of physical injury; and certain of every detail. Some victims confuse fine points or even recant. Nor should police get lost in stereotypes — believing, for example, that an adult victim will be more believable than an adolescent.

Police should not interrogate victims or threaten to use a polygraph device. Lie-detector tests are especially unreliable with people who have been traumatized, and can destroy the victim’s trust in law enforcement. Many states bar police from using them with rape victims….

The fear of false rape accusations has a long history in the legal system. In the 1600s, England’s chief justice, Matthew Hale, warned that rape “is an accusation easily to be made and hard to be proved, and harder to be defended by the party accused.” Judges in the U.S. read the so-called Hale warning to juries until the 1980s. But most recent research suggests that false reporting is relatively rare. FBI figures show that police annually declare around 5 percent of rape cases unfounded, or baseless. Social scientists examining police records in detail and using methodologically rigorous standards cite similar, single-digit rates….

There are no firm statistics on how often police arrest women for making false rape reports, nor on how often prosecutors take such cases to court. Nobody collects such data. But leading law enforcement organizations urge caution in filing such charges. The International Association of Chiefs of Police and the FBI stress the need for a thorough investigation before discounting a report of rape. Cops must work as hard to prove a falsehood as they do to prove a truth.

In practice, many police departments will pursue charges against women only in extreme circumstances — say, in a highly public case where a suspect’s reputation has suffered, or where the police have expended considerable investigative resources. This reluctance stems from the belief that in rape cases, the biggest problem is not false reporting, but no reporting. Only about one-fifth to one-third of rapes get reported to police, national surveys show. One reason is that women fear police won’t believe them….

After [Marc] O’Leary was linked to Marie’s rape, Lynnwood Police Chief Steven Jensen requested an outside review of how his department had handled the investigation. In a report not previously made public, Sgt. Gregg Rinta, a sex crimes supervisor with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, wrote that what happened was “nothing short of the victim being coerced into admitting that she lied about the rape.”

That Marie recanted wasn’t surprising, Rinta wrote, given the “bullying” and “hounding” she was subjected to. The detectives elevated “minor inconsistencies” — common among victims — into discrepancies, while ignoring strong evidence the crime had occurred. As for threatening jail and a possible withdrawal of housing assistance if Marie failed a polygraph: “These statements are coercive, cruel, and unbelievably unprofessional,” Rinta wrote. “I can’t imagine ANY justification for making these statements.”…

In a recent interview, Steve Rider, the current commander of Lynnwood’s Criminal Investigations Division, called Marie’s case a “major failing” that has left members of the department with a profound sense of regret: “Knowing that she went through that brutal attack — and then we told her she lied? That’s awful. We all got into this job to help people, not to hurt them.” Lynnwood Sgt. Rodney Cohnheim said of Marie, “She was victimized twice.”…

Marie’s case led to changes in practices and culture, Rider said. Detectives receive additional training about rape victims. Rape victims get immediate assistance from advocates at a local healthcare center. Investigators must have “definitive proof” of lying before doubting a rape report, and a charge of false reporting must now be reviewed with higher-ups. “We learned a great deal from this. And we don’t want to see this happen to anybody ever again,” Rider said….

In 2008, Marie’s case was one of four labeled unfounded by the Lynnwood police, according to statistics reported to the FBI. In the five years from 2008 to 2012, the department determined that 10 of 47 rapes reported to Lynnwood police were unfounded — 21.3 percent. That’s five times the national average of 4.3 percent for agencies covering similar-sized populations during that same period. Rider said his agency has become more cautious about labeling a case unfounded since Marie.

Related articles / Additional resources:

Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller, How We Reported ‘An Unbelievable Story of Rape.The Marshall Project, 16 December 2015. ”

Stephen Engelberg, ProPublica, and Bill Keller, The Marshall Project, About That Unbelievable Story. 24 December 2015.

Michael Fitzgerald, Notable Narrative: Ken Armstrong, T. Christian Miller and “An Unbelievable Story of Rape.NiemanStoryboard, 26 January 2016. “Ken Armstrong and T. Christian Miller found themselves in the odd position of moving from competitors to collaborators, over the course of a phone call or two and a few emails. Miller says calling the lawyer of a potential source and finding out that another reporter had already been talking to her “was one of those moments both awful and fortuitous.” After his stomach dropped, he says he quickly decided that rather than try to scoop the competition, there was a chance to collaborate and make a stronger story. On a practical level, that was probably wise: as Miller would learn, it had taken Armstrong six months and scores of calls and emails with the attorney for “Marie,” the victim in the story, before she agreed to talk with him.

It helped that the two investigative reporters work for philanthropic journalism organizations, Armstrong The Marshall Project, and Miller Pro Publica. Both are collaborative organizations to begin with. It also helped that their editors, Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of the Marshall Project and Pro Publica Senior Editor Joe Sexton, knew each other well from working together at The New York Times. Armstrong and Miller also knew each other by reputation and from casual interactions at things like conferences for Investigative Reporters and Editors. Finally, it was a bit of serendipity that the two had been working what turned out to be opposite ends of the same story.”

Pedro Burgos and Blair Hickman, The Best Reporting on Rape: A Marshall Project reading list. The Marshall Project: Non profit journalism about criminal justice. 17 December 2015. “In conjunction with the publication of An Unbelievable Story of Rape, our joint venture with ProPublica, we offer a selection of the most important recent journalism on how police and society at large deal with this most invasive and misunderstood crime. Did we miss something? Tweet a link to @MarshallProj.”