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In A North Florida County, Prosecutors Drop Nearly 50 Percent of Sexual Battery Cases

Over a three-year period, Alachua County prosecutors closed 236 sexual battery cases: 115 were dropped, 92 were offered plea deals, and seven went to trial.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie DarnellPhoto illustration by Kat Wawrykow. Photo from Alachua Sheriff’s Department Facebook.

On a summer evening in 2017, Nicole drove to her parents’ home in Alachua County, Florida, to pick up her two children after dinner. “I need to tell them,” the 32-year-old thought as she wiped away tears. She disclosed to her family that she had been abused many years earlier by her mother’s ex-husband, Bryant. Her disclosure led to an investigation by the Alachua County Sheriff’s Department, who filed a probable cause statement against Bryant, which was obtained by the Appeal through a records request. However, prosecutors ultimately dropped the case and declined to press charges. To maintain their privacy, the family requested that their real names not be used.

The probable cause statement reflects allegations of an extended period of abuse. In 1992, Nicole, her mother, Lynn, and Bryant, Lynn’s husband at the time, lived in a trailer park in southwest Gainesville. Most nights, Lynn would leave for her shift at a local law enforcement agency. It was then, the statement alleges, that Nicole said Bryant would come into her bedroom and touch her. The abuse eventually worsened, and Nicole said Bryant later raped her. She said the abuse didn’t even stop after Lynn and Bryant got divorced when she was around 10 years old. Nicole also remembered that when she visited Bryant at his Miramar home, he entered the living room where she was sleeping and, after covering up a digital clock to darken the room, touched her vagina. The probable cause narrative also states that Nicole never told anyone about the abuse because she said Bryant told her that if she did, he would hurt her mother.

But in 2016, Nicole learned that Bryant was back in Alachua County and had racked up criminal charges that included DUIs and domestic violence by strangulation. Then she saw him working at a Gainesville store. Nicole said she tried not to think about Bryant, but the fear of running into him again gnawed at her for the rest of the year.

By the summer of 2017, Nicole knew she had to say something.

Walking into her parents’ house that summer night, she took a deep breath. She spotted John, her new stepfather, outside grilling. Shaking violently, she asked him if he had a moment to talk.

“I could finally breathe,” Nicole said. “I felt like this whole weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Lynn was concerned that the abuse Nicole described happened long ago. “I knew it would be hard for the prosecutor,” Lynn said. “But I think if they got [Nicole] on the stand, the jury would have believed her.” Lynn encouraged Nicole to file a police report. She was confident the legal system that she had dedicated her life to as a patrol officer could bring her daughter justice, especially because there’s no statute of limitations on child sexual abuse in Florida.

On Oct. 13, 2017, Alachua County Sheriff’s Department detectives filed their probable cause narrative, alleging that “by his actions, the defendant did intentionally sexually batter his adopted daughter.” Detectives wrote that Nicole “could not say how many times she was sexually abused because it happened so often” but could describe specific incidents: she said she “was digitally penetrated in his (Bryant’s) van while he would be driving, and (he) had her sit with him so that this could be accomplished.” The narrative noted that Bryant denied abusing Nicole, but that “he did however classify himself as an alcoholic, and stated that he routinely drank in excess while he was living with the victim. When asked, he also estimated that several times a week, he would drink to the point that he would not remember some of the night before.” The narrative also states that Julia, Nicole’s sister, and Nicole’s cousin also alleged that Bryant had molested them.

On Aug. 23, 2017, the probable cause statement shows, Julia confronted Bryant on a call recorded by detectives from the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office. During the call, Bryant said “I don’t recall doing that.” In an Oct. 13 interview with detectives, he denied the abuse ever occurred but said he drank heavily several times per week which led to gaps in his memory.

On October 17, 2017, detectives filed a sworn complaint against Bryant. The Appeal attempted to view the sworn complaint but was told by the Alachua County clerk’s office that it could not be released due to Marsy’s Law which heavily restricts the disclosure of records related to victims in criminal cases.

Nicole never got the chance to testify in the case, nor did Julia or Nicole’s cousin. On Jan. 31, 2018, Daniel Owen, a prosecutor with Florida’s Eighth Judicial Circuit State Attorney’s Office, declined to charge Bryant.

Multiple attempts were made to obtain a comment from Bryant regarding the abuse allegations against him but The Appeal was unable to reach him. Mike Sawyer, an attorney who represented Bryant in an unrelated case, wrote in an email that Bryant did not wish to be interviewed and has no comment other than “there is no substance behind the allegations.”

From December 2015 to December 2018, Alachua County prosecutors with the Eighth Circuit office closed 236 sexual battery cases. 92 cases were closed by plea deal and 115 cases—nearly 50 percent of the total number of closed sexual battery cases during this time period—were dropped, mostly due to “insufficient evidence to sustain conviction,” according to data obtained by The Appeal via public records requests. Only 3 percent—or seven cases—made it to trial, a rate significantly lower than the national average of 7 percent. The data reviewed by The Appeal includes only Alachua County, not all sexual battery cases brought by the office, which also covers Baker, Bradford, Gilchrist, Levy, and Union counties.

The 115 dropped cases included allegations like rape and child sexual abuse, and included DNA evidence, victims who immediately reported to law enforcement, witnesses who encountered victims immediately after an assault and could corroborate their account, and even confessions, according to public records.

Yet 93 of the 115 cases, including Nicole’s, were filed under the “insufficient evidence” code by prosecutors, meaning that the state did not believe there was enough evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. “’Insufficient evidence?’ What does that mean?” said Teresa Drake, director of the University of Florida law’s school’s Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Clinic, who also worked as a prosecutor in the Eighth Circuit office for nine years. “And what does that mean to a victim that says, ‘I’m evidence, and I’m willing to testify.’ That’s basically saying to a victim, ‘You’re not good enough, and nobody’s going to believe you.’”

After The Appeal contacted the Eighth Circuit office for comment on Owen’s charging decision in Nicole’s case, chief assistant state attorney Jeanne Singer said that she would answer questions on behalf of the office. Over the course of two interviews, Singer discussed the charging decisions made by her office in multiple cases, the office’s prosecution rate as well as  criticism from victim advocates and the sheriff that her office wasn’t properly involving victims. She dismissed criticisms of the office as a “naive misunderstanding of what prosecutors do.”

She also said that because of the high burden of proof in criminal cases, prosecutors are ethically bound to ask tough questions or speak harsh truths to victims.

Meaghan Ybos, a founder of People for the Enforcement of Rape Laws, said that when prosecutors are criticized, they often respond by saying that people simply don’t understand their job. Though prosecutors have a duty not to file charges unless they believe they have sufficient evidence to convict, Ybos said, “it’s sounding like there have been cases in [Alachua County] where there was enough evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt but the state attorney’s office just didn’t pursue those cases. That’s a valid concern.”

From 2013 to 2017, the number of rapes reported in Alachua County rose from 93 to 194, a 109 percent increase, according to public records. So in October 2016, after it obtained a grant from the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, the Gainesville Police Department held a training for all law enforcement agencies in the county, including the Eighth Circuit office, on “forensic experiential trauma interviewing,” an investigative technique meant to make the process of recalling information about an assault less traumatizing for victims. Advocates including Laura Kalt, director of Alachua County’s Victim Services and Rape Crisis Center, say the training has resulted in better investigations and evidence-gathering.

But despite such improvements, victims and advocates like Kalt say that the Eighth Circuit office is still “operating on an old mentality.”

“They just don’t see that they’re out of touch with the current standards,” Kalt added.

Singer said the data on sexual battery prosecutions—specifically the low trial rate—indicates that her office is actually doing a better job on these cases. “That doesn’t offend me at all,” she said. “In fact that’s a positive for our community. You don’t want to have all these cases litigated because the chances of getting a conviction is slim.”

But victims told The Appeal they believe that prosecutors bring charges in sexual assault cases that are not reflective of the elements of the offenses committed in their cases. One victim said she was raped on Oct. 31, 2016, during a party she attended with friends, one of whom said she witnessed the defendant on top of her. The witness told detectives that she told the defendant the victim was “too intoxicated to consent” and that the defendant had “stated that he understood.” According to a police report, the defendant “forcefully performed oral sex” on the victim and bit her, “causing her pain and leaving a visible bite mark. The mark was later observed and documented by the SAE (sexual assault examination) nurse.” During a call with the victim the next day recorded by Gainesville Police Department detectives, the defendant “apologized for biting” her and acknowledged that she was “too drunk to consent” and “kept pulling away from him during the act.” He was arrested for sexual battery, but the Eighth Circuit office ultimately offered him a plea deal for felony battery which he accepted.

In February 2018, Rachel reported that she was raped by a tech specialist in her Gainesville office where she worked as a property manager. The man was there to train her and a co-worker on new technology, but after he said the training was just for Rachel, her co-worker went home. Rachel then locked the door, which she later told detectives was a normal procedure to prevent people from interrupting training.

That’s when he moved his chair next to Rachel’s and began “making advances,” according to a sheriff’s report. He initially stopped after she told him “it made her uncomfortable and she did not want to.” When Rachel rebuffed him a second time, he told her he normally carried a gun. He then kissed Rachel and grabbed her by her arms, pulled her pants down, pushed her onto the desk, and raped her.

The man was arrested for sexual battery. Despite DNA evidence implicating him in the assault, after speaking with his defense attorney, prosecutors charged him with aggravated assault with intent to commit a felony, the charge to which he pleaded. In Florida, this is a lesser offense than sexual battery because it doesn’t require that the defendant actually touch the victim.

While Rachel initially supported the idea of a plea deal if it meant she wouldn’t have to testify at trial, she later objected to the deal when she learned prosecutors planned to charge her assailant with a non-sexual offense.

“This is why women don’t come forward,” Rachel told The Appeal. “Why go forward when they see cases get plea deals when they should not be offered? I was raped in my office. There wasn’t an intent to commit a felony. There was a felony.”

In October 2018, Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell criticized the Eighth Circuit office’s charging decision in Rachel’s case in open court. “To say that I’m frustrated about how this case progressed is an understatement,” Darnell said, “I’m horrified. The victim’s statement regarding the plea was made known to the state prior to the plea being offered, and yet the state went forward with a plea on a case, a crime that meets the elements of a rape but they submitted a plea again, without the victims support and with her objection known to come forward to the court of an aggravated assault.” The Florida constitution, Darnell further noted, provides the right for a victim to be heard and informed about their case but that “the victim survivor in this case was not informed.” And Darnell said that when she met with prosecutors from the Eighth Circuit office, she was told that this was a “typical plea.”

Darnell said that Rachel’s case made her concerned there was a “systemic problem” at the office.

“I continued to be very bothered by that case,” Darnell told The Appeal. “It was handled terribly, it was a horrific injustice, and to this day it remains inexplicable to me.”

“There’s some [prosecutors] over there that are very passionate about what they do,” said Jody Cail, the Alachua sheriff’s detective who worked on Rachel’s case. “And there are some over there that are just processing cases.”

In an interview with The Appeal, Singer denied that her office did not inform Rachel of the plea deal before it was ahead of it being offered.

And despite the sheriff’s concerns, the judge accepted the plea, telling the court he was constrained by the charge filed by the prosecution.

Nicole, her partner, and members of her family met with Owen, the prosecutor who dropped her case, hoping for an explanation. They said Owen told them he didn’t think he could prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt. He insisted that because the abuse happened so long ago, there was no evidence, even though there were three victims willing to testify.

Owen also said that because Lynn never noticed anything was wrong with Nicole, a jury might not choose to convict Bryant because they would think she was a “bad mom.”

Nicole said that she felt retraumatized by the statement. On the drive home that afternoon, she thought, “How could he say that? My mom’s not a bad mom. It just kept repeating itself in my head. … My heart felt like it was going to come out of my chest.”  

Singer, the chief assistant state attorney, told The Appeal that Owen’s “bad mom” comment was “probably a truthful statement under the facts of that case.” She added that “we have to do a lot of the bad-news telling” to accusers.  

“The idea that it implied that this was the mother’s fault I think is something that they generate from the situation, not what is told to them,” Singer said.

Advocates at the Victim Services and Rape Crisis Center told The Appeal that Owen has a “harsh bedside manner” and often jokes about his “brutally honest” demeanor before asking questions like what a victim was wearing the night she was raped.

Lynn and Julia said they were never formally interviewed by Owen, though Singer wrote in an e-mail that her office did take testimony from “four female witnesses/victims” connected to the case.

Data demonstrates why victims and law enforcement may be frustrated by the Eighth Circuit office’s handling of sexual battery cases: from December 2015 to December 2018, the office declined to prosecute nearly 50 percent of sexual battery cases and Owen declined to prosecute 20 of the 36 sexual battery cases he worked, according to public records. Brian Rodgers, a former prosecutor in the Crimes Against Women and Children unit, dropped 46 out of 135 cases; prosecutor David Byron, also in the unit, dropped 16 of 29.

“We do all this work, all this training, all this investment, and then the case goes to the state attorney’s office, and they shut the door on all of that,” said Sheriff Darnell.

Regarding the office’s prosecution rates, Singer said that charging decisions are made on a case-by-case basis.

Soon after Owen closed Nicole’s case in January 2018, a private investigator on an unrelated case uncovered a fourth possible victim of Bryant in Lakeland, outside of the Eighth Circuit office’s jurisdiction. But by that time, Owen had moved to the gun crime unit at the Eighth Circuit office. The family asked Sean Brewer, the division chief who oversees the Crimes Against Women and Children unit, to review Nicole’s case, but he declined to reopen it. Singer said that because the Eighth Circuit office didn’t receive a new case for the potential fourth victim, “there is no way I can opine on whether the older case would be reopened.”

Lynn, Nicole, and their family are still trying to move on from the experience.

“I was angry and disappointed in the system I’ve worked for, for now 27 years,” Lynn said. “I felt let down, I felt like a victim. … I felt betrayed by the system. I don’t know how else to describe it.”