BY JUANI HOPWOOD
Bernalillo County District Attorney Kari Brandenburg said Friday that her office is having trouble prosecuting rape cases from University of New Mexico because of a lack of evidence and incomplete and underreporting.
Brandenburg said she believes that the high rate of underreported rape cases shows that most victims do not want to be involved in prosecution, not that victims believe that prosecution is impossible.
Brandenburg was joined at a news conference in her office by UNM Police Chief Kevin McCabe and May Sagbakken of the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico, who also serves as a committee member of UNM’s Sexual Misconduct & Assault Response Team (SMART).
When asked what the DA’s office or UNM could do differently to reduce what she described as a dismissal rate of over half of all sexual assault cases, Brandenburg responded that the figures were mirrored throughout the nation, not just within the county, and that she felt that it was necessary to keep the topic on sexual assault.
“Let’s remain focused on sexual harassment and sexual assault. That’s the story. It may not be as sensational or exciting, or may not sell as many papers, but let’s not deviate from what this report was really about and the goals that are very worthwhile that we all need to work toward,” Brandenburg said.
Brandenburg also expressed frustration with challenges that the New Mexico Supreme Court’s case management order presents to prosecutors and to law enforcement. She also emphasized difficulties caused by often receiving evidence insufficient to fulfill the burden of proof required to prosecute an offender. Brandenburg said most cases are delayed because of a lack of evidence or eyewitnesses. She described rape cases as “complex” and characterized her office’s relationship with law enforcement as having “healthy friction,” with potential areas of improvement on both sides.
The U.S. Department of Justice released a report on April 22 saying that UNM’s current methods of handling sexual harassment and sexual assault complaints are in violation of federal law. Brandenburg said she has never heard a complaint about UNM police and that she felt that the media was unfairly focusing on a footnote, and was, as a result, distracting the public from the importance of addressing sexual assault. Brandenburg said her office was never contacted by the U.S. District Attorney’s office, and that if the DOJ felt that the results of their investigation were significant, they surely would have.
McCabe said his officers are also exasperated by the attention focused on sexual assault cases at UNM, but acknowledged that it is his department’s job to investigate and the DA office’s job to prosecute.
Sagbakken also spoke, expressing concern at the high rate of dismissals, particularly of cases involving minors, and highlighted the importance of law enforcement and prosecutors working together effectively.
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