The effect of evidence factors and victim characteristics on prosecutors’ charging decisions in sexual assault cases

Jeffrey W. Spears, Cassia C. Spohn

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

92 Scopus citations

Abstract

Feminists contend that legally irrelevant victim characteristics determine the outcome of sexual assault cases. They argue that criminal justice officials base their decisions on stereotypes of rape, and that only “real rapes” with “genuine victims” are taken seriously. Our empirical study of Detroit prosecutors’ charging decisions in sexual assault cases confirms this: We found that the only significant predictors of charging were victim characteristics. Prosecutors were much more likely to file charges if the victim was an adolescent or an adult rather than a child. Charging also was affected by the victim’s moral character and her behavior at the time of the incident. Moreover, these victim characteristics influenced charging regardless of the strength of evidence in the case or whether the crime was classified as an aggravated or a simple sexual assault. Overall the results of this study suggest that Detroit prosecutors regard victim characteristics as relevant to convictability in all types of sexual assault cases. They suggest that prosecutors attempt to avoid uncertainty by screening out sexual assault cases unlikely to result in a conviction because of questions about the victim’s character, the victim’s behavior at the time of the incident, and the victim’s credibility.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)501-524
Number of pages24
JournalJustice Quarterly
Volume14
Issue number3
DOIs
StatePublished - Jan 1 1997
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Law

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