If you or someone you love has been the victim of sexual assault or child sexual abuse, you may be wondering what happens after you disclose the abuse to law enforcement. That’s what this article will explore.
Every case is different, but typically the legal process will follow these steps:
Arraignment and preliminary hearing.
Prosecution, ending with a plea agreement or trial.
Below, we’ll discuss each step in more detail, as well as what you can expect once the case is over.
Keep in mind that some of the places, people, and procedures mentioned are specific to Marion County, West Virginia. However, you can expect a similar process in other counties and states.
If the reported crime occurred within the past 48 hours, the victim will be examined by a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE nurse). The SANE nurse will perform a rape kit on the victim.
If the disclosure comes after this 48-hour window, the victim will go to Ruby Memorial Hospital. There, the victim will see a medical doctor who is trained to get the victim any medical help he or she needs.
In addition to a medical examination, a forensic interview will be scheduled. This interview will be held at the Marion County Child Advocacy Center (CAC) or another CAC.
CAC personnel are trained to conduct a non-leading interview in a child-friendly environment. They do not work for the police, the prosecutor, or the court system. Their goal is to make sure the child’s story is heard.
The CAC interview will be recorded so that the victim does not need to be interviewed by multiple parties. It will be held in a private setting, by people who are concerned about the victim and the case — such as the prosecutor or law enforcement officer assigned to the case — may be observing the interview via closed circuit television.
You can learn more about the process on the Marion County CAC website.
If the police department writes up a criminal complaint and probable cause is found, the next step is for law enforcement to arrest the perpetrator.
Arraignment and Preliminary Hearing
After the arrest, the perpetrator (now known as the defendant) will have an arraignment in front of a magistrate. The magistrate will decide whether to put the defendant in jail and/or set bond.
If the defendant is sent to jail, he will still have a right to bond. He will just have to put up money or property to ensure that he will come to any future hearings. Bond conditions are set by the magistrate and should prohibit the defendant from having any contact with the victim and/or family of the victim.
Sometimes, the magistrate puts the defendant on home confinement. Under this arrangement, the defendant will wear an ankle bracelet that reports his every move. Additional rules will be set by the home confinement. These may include:
No drugs or alcohol.
Required to submit his schedule to the home confinement officer.
No contact with minors.
No contact with the victim or victim’s family.
The defendant has a right to a preliminary hearing within 10 days of his arrest. At this hearing, the prosecutor presents evidence to establish probable cause, which is much easier to meet than the trial standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the magistrate finds probable cause, or if the defendant waives the hearing (which is common), then the case is transferred or “bound over” from Magistrate Court to Circuit Court.
The next step in the process will be to indict the defendant before a Grand Jury.
The indictment is a private hearing in Circuit Court. Not even the defendant is allowed to be present — only the prosecutor, law enforcement, and the Grand Jury will be present.
If the Grand Jury finds probable cause, the case will continue through the judicial process. The case will be assigned a felony number, and a trial will be scheduled.
Probable cause just means that there is reasonable probability that a crime has been committed and the defendant was the one who committed the crime.
It’s important to note that just because a trial is scheduled does not mean the case will go to court quickly. Both sides (prosecution and defense) can ask for the trial to be continued (postponed to a later date), and this motion is typically granted. A case can be continued for up to one year after the time it was moved from Magistrate Court to Circuit Court (and in many circumstances significantly longer).
At this point, you can expect to meet with the prosecutor who has been assigned to the case as well as the victim advocate at the Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. This is an informal meeting where the victim and their family can ask questions, get answers, let us know how you are feeling, and discuss the outcome you would like to see.
This is the time for you to give the victim advocate any information that will help her get you through this process. Get to know the advocate, and give her a sense of who you are and what this crime has done to you.
The advocate knows this is not easy. It is her job to help you and your family work through the system as best she can. She is trained to be able to ease your concerns and fears. The advocate is your friend that will be there through this whole process and will do everything she can to support you.
You will receive practical help and referrals from the victim advocate as needed. For instance, the victim advocate can show you the courtroom before you ever go to court. She can set up appointments for you and help you find a therapist you like and feel comfortable with. She can also coordinate with the victim’s school to make sure things go smoothly during times when the victim will have to miss school for court or appointments.
It is up to the prosecutor to decide whether a plea offer will be extended to the defendant. A plea could be offered for several reasons:
To get a conviction without taking the case to trial.
To keep the victim from having to testify.
To address weaknesses in the State’s evidence.
To resolve the case more quickly.
Prosecutors have an ethical duty to discuss plea offers with victims and law enforcement. If no plea arrangement is offered or the defendant rejects the plea offer, the case will go to trial.
If the case does indeed go to trial, you will meet with the victim advocate and the prosecutor several times to go over your testimony and discuss what to expect during the trial. The victim advocate will take you to the courtroom where you will be testifying and introduce you to the bailiff, the law enforcement officer charged with courtroom safety.
The victim advocate will stay with you the whole time to answer any questions and guide you through this process.
Trials typically last about three days in Marion County, but they can go longer. At the end of the trial, the jury will give its verdict. If the defendant is found guilty, sentencing does not happen immediately. A separate hearing will be set to determine the defendant’s sentence.
Court will resume about 60 days after the verdict in order to sentence the defendant.
This is the time when the victim and victim’s family can give a Victim Impact Statement to the Court. The statement can be done in person at the hearing, written down and read at the hearing, or just filed with the court if the victim does not wish to speak out loud.
After hearing all recommendations for sentencing, the judge will sentence defendant. The severity and type of sentence will vary depending on the case and evidence. Potential sentences include:
The prosecutor and victim advocate can help explain what the defendant’s sentence means and anything else you need to know.
What Happens After the Trial?
After all the emotions of getting a verdict, hearing the sentencing, and participating in the trial, victims usually feel confused and alone. Most victims do not know where to go or what to do after the process has come to its conclusion. I have heard victims say:
“I thought everything was going to be perfect now.”
“I thought I would feel different.”
“I thought it was over, but actually it just started.”
These feelings seem to be very common. Many victims slide backwards during this time because all of their focus was on the trial, and now that it is over, they are left with the emptiness of facing what happened to them and where to go from there.
Now it is time to pick up the pieces and figure out what comes next. The victim advocate plays a huge role in this. Arranging for counseling/therapy for the victim is imperative. The advocate will remain in contact with the victim, meeting in person or just talking on the phone like they did at the beginning of the process.
My role as a victim advocate is to help the survivor to focus on healing and progressing forward in life. If that means that we need to talk, text, or Facebook message each day, then that’s what we do. I have victims from cases over ten years ago that I still speak with weekly.
All victims need to know that it is ok to not be ok. The legal process can be long, overwhelming, and exhausting for victims. My hope is that each victim/survivor I work with takes this awful crime that happened to them, turns it around, and thrives regardless of it.
If you are a survivor in need of support, please refer to the hotlines provided on our page of Resources for Survivors.
About the Author: Kim Hawkins works as a Victim Advocate in the Marion County Prosecuting Attorney's Office. She was also one of the founders of SHIELD Task Force.