In the wake of every rape accusation, a prosecutor has to carefully weigh the available evidence and a variety of other factors and then make a decision about whether to take the case to trial. Prosecutors know that rape cases can be grueling and they’re often quite difficult to successfully prosecute, thanks to certain cultural factors, and thus, they tend to err on the side of caution when it comes to bringing a case to court—some prosecutors, of course, also feed into rape culture themselves in terms of how they evaluate and make decisions, and they could be more aggressive about prosecuting.
When a rape accusation doesn’t result in a trial, people commonly assume this means the accusation must have been false. After all, if it had been valid, the victim/survivor[1. I know I’ve discussed why I use this term before, but as a reminder, some people prefer to identify as rape victims, others as rape survivors, and I prefer to respect both groups when discussing their lived experience.] would have been able to testify in court against the accused, the evidence would have been lined up, and the perpetrator would have gone to jail.
People seem eager to question whether a rape happened at all when cases don’t go to trial, or, if they’re willing to admit that people actually do know rape when it happens to them, they suggest the accused wasn’t guilty of a crime, that someone else must have been the perpetrator.
While everyone is innocent until proven guilty, this does not mean that when a case doesn’t go to trial, nothing happened. It doesn’t even mean that not going to trial means the accused is innocent: in the eyes of the law that person is innocent (no case has been presented, ergo no body of proof has been provided, ergo the accused must be legally innocent by virtue of never having been tried), but that person may well have committed the crime—and gotten away with it.
Here’s the thing that people don’t seem to understand about rape cases. They are viewed as violations of criminal law, crimes against the state, with the victim/survivor as evidence (similarly, homicide victims are evidence of a crime). However, like any other case, they are not worth taking to court if there’s not a substantive body of evidence backing the matter—otherwise, countless hours of time on the part of jurors, court staff, and other personnel are wasted, along with funds.
Prosecutors can be acutely aware that a crime occurred, and they may have a strong sense that a given accused person committed it, but if there’s not enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crime, a jury is obligated to return a not guilty verdict. The prosecutor may make a calculated decision not to pursue the case if such a verdict seems likely, because her job is to get convictions, to focus on pursuing cases that can be won in court.
If more evidence emerges, the decision not to go to trial earlier can mean that the pathway is open to bring the case to trial with the new evidence, in the hopes of bringing the perpetrator to justice. But otherwise, the prosecutor may have to simply monitor the case for signs of changes, keep an eye on the accused and similar crimes in case she has a serial rapist on her hands, and hope that something breaks.
This can make being a prosecutor a very frustrating job. While a given case may appear very cut and dried to a casual observer and even to people in the prosecutor’s office, if it can’t do well in court, it won’t go to court, because this is the way the legal system works. After all, we wouldn’t want people convicted on shoddy evidence or flimsy cases, because this has real dangers when it comes to false convictions of people wrongfully accused of crimes they didn’t commit, including rape.
When a rape case makes the news, it tends to be an intense focal point, and it becomes even more of one if the prosecutor announces that she will not be pressing charges. The jump to assume the accused must have been innocent of the crime, however, is a wrong assumption: the only thing you know when a case doesn’t go to trial is that there wasn’t enough evidence to successfully convict someone. That doesn’t tell you whether an accused committed the crime, or whether an accusation was false.
It’s troubling to see a persistent belief that cases not going to trial represent falsely reported rapes or false accusations of people who were innocent. Such attitudes feed directly into rape culture and put a heavy burden on victims/survivors, who are again not responsible for determining whether their cases go to trial, though they can sue for civil damages if they believe they have a strong enough case to make it worth it (as in certain other types of crimes, it is possible for a matter to be pursued in both civil and criminal court, if it can be proved both a tort and a criminal harm).
When cases don’t go to court, it’s important to stress that there are many elements involved in determining how and whether a case is tried, and that these factors don’t necessarily have anything to do with the validity of the initial complaint and accusation. Without this emphasis, observers may come away with a false notion about the significance of the news of a case not going to trial. The thing of note here is not the decision not to press charges, but the circumstances behind it, and the cold calculations that had to go into that decision.