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Freeman on sexual assault investigation report: 'A necessary wake-up call'

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Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman points to a reporter
Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman points to a reporter for a question inside the Hennepin County Government Center on Tuesday, March 20, 2018.
Evan Frost | MPR News File

Here's a troubling number: In Minnesota, fewer than 1 in 10 cases of sexual assault reported to police result in a suspect being convicted. That's just one finding from a new Star Tribune investigation of sexual assaults reported around the state. In most of the cases reviewed, police investigators never passed the files along to prosecutors. Of the cases that prosecutors did see, charges were filed around half the time. 

MPR News host Cathy Wurzer spoke with Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman about the issue, and how sexual assaults are prosecuted in Minnesota.

Comments have been edited for length and clarity.

You've been around for a while. Those figures outlined in the Star Tribune report are clearly disturbing. Only 26 percent of the investigated rape cases were forwarded to prosecutors, 12 percent result in charges, only 7 percent result in a conviction. What is going on here?

Well, I think this article and the review is a necessary wake-up call to everyone in the system that we need do a far better job collectively on sex assault cases. I could say, and it is true, that they are hard cases to prove. Usually there's no witness. Lots of times, whatever physical evidence has been tampered with, the sheets have been washed, the clothes washed. Often it's an issue of consent, alcohol can be involved. But you know, it's no excuse if the victim is never interviewed, if the witnesses are never interviewed. And prosecutors can't charge a case we never see. 

We have studied this carefully in the Hennepin County Attorney's office, and we've even gone back and looked at old cases that we have decided not to charge. We do that periodically, and in 2016, out of 197 cases we reviewed, we re-examined and charged seven of them. One was dismissed and one's pending now. So we have done our own internal review. I think what is clear is we need to work more closely with our police officers. If they redline the case, which means we never see it, we can't do anything about it. 

You mentioned that there's sometimes a lack of physical evidence — you mentioned sometimes the sheets are washed and that kind of thing, or few witnesses to the case. But really, aren't those same issues something that you're faced with in prosecuting other crimes?

Yes, but not to the extent they are here. Child abuse cases, you have the physical manifestation of the injury that they incurred, and often teachers and others talk with the children and learn, etcetera. But you know, the lack of basic evidence — and that's not always the case, and lots of times we have enough to go on when we get it, particularly if it's investigated well — the whole issue of consent, the confusion with alcohol, which exists in other cases, you're absolutely correct. It's kind of a combination, it makes it more difficult. I think there probably still is some lasting carryover from old myths that sexual assault cases are not to be taken seriously and it's a he shot, she shot; he said, she said, and let's just let him go. But frankly, I don't think there's very much of that anymore. In the last 20 years, we've gotten much more serious about these cases, I know we prosecutors have. 

But those figures from the [Star Tribune] don't exactly speak to that, though. And this is only in a two-year period of time that they were looking at some of these cases, in 2015 and 2016.

Well, and it's also that's statewide numbers. Our numbers are better. We charged 63 percent of the cases last year that were brought to us. That's not too far off the average for other cases. Our average in other cases is in the high 60s. And you say well, why didn't you charge every case that comes? If there isn't sufficient admissible evidence, we believe, to prove, we should not charge a case. And we don't. 

When you read the series, I know you've been reading it and there's still more to come, as a guy who's been in this business for a very long time, what was your first reaction? Did you say yeah, okay, this sounds familiar?

OMG. Oh my God. I didn't think the numbers were this bad, and I didn't think there were that number of cases that the victim was never talked to, or almost no investigation was done. I really honestly thought more was done. 

Given the [Star Tribune] investigation, Mike Freeman, would your folks then work with the Minneapolis Police Department to maybe re-examine some of the cases that were under the microscope in this investigation, maybe reopen some cases?

Yes. We will be doing that. 

County Attorney Freeman, I appreciate your time this morning. Thank you so much.

Thank you, Cathy.