Convictions Are Rare When A Person With An Intellectual Disability Is Sexually Assaulted A rape case 25 years ago revolutionized justice for people with intellectual disabilities. They were "unwinnable" rape cases, until prosecutors figured out the secret.
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How Prosecutors Changed The Odds To Start Winning Some Of The Toughest Rape Cases

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How Prosecutors Changed The Odds To Start Winning Some Of The Toughest Rape Cases

How Prosecutors Changed The Odds To Start Winning Some Of The Toughest Rape Cases

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

The rape of someone with an intellectual disability is one of the hardest crimes for police to investigate and for prosecutors to win in court. A small number of prosecutors, though, are trying to change that. They're using new techniques to investigate and go after these cases. NPR's Joseph Shapiro continues our investigation into an epidemic of sexual assault - and first a warning that some of the descriptions in this story might be disturbing.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Let's go back to 1993 to the wealthy suburb of Glen Ridge, N.J., and the court trial over the rape of a 17-year-old girl with an intellectual disability. That's the preferred term now for what back then was called mental retardation.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: In New Jersey today, a jury will hear closing arguments in the trial of four young men accused of raping a mentally retarded woman.

SHAPIRO: The trial got national attention. That was a first.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Prosecutors say a dozen high school athletes lured a young woman into a basement and performed sex acts on her.

SHAPIRO: Those in popular school athletes got the young woman, a student in the special education classes, to come into the basement. They promised she'd get to go on a date with the football player she had a crush on. Then she was assaulted with a baseball bat and a broomstick. There was the press coverage, a book...

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Something's up at the high school.

SHAPIRO: ...And a made-for-TV movie.

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DORON BELL: (As Carl Brewer) Supposedly she was with some guys from the football team.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) What guys?

SHAPIRO: The case divided the New Jersey town. She was the young woman seen as having no future. They were the young men headed to college. A young prosecutor took on the case. He's the hero in this TV movie.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Excuse me. We're looking for the head prosecutor for the sexual assault and rape analysis unit.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Yes. Mr. Laurino's suite is right this way. Yo, Bobby...

ERIC STOLTZ: (As Bob Laurino) Yep.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) ...Couple of cops want to see you.

SHAPIRO: Four high school students were convicted. And that young prosecutor, Robert Laurino - today he's the chief prosecutor in Essex County, N.J. He continues to make prosecution of sex crimes against people with intellectual disabilities a priority.

ROBERT LAURINO: We are here for those who are victimized. And these are probably the most victimized individuals that we have come through our doors.

SHAPIRO: The most victimized people who come through the doors of the busiest prosecutor's office in New Jersey - NPR obtained unpublished data from the U.S. Department of Justice and revealed that people with intellectual disabilities are sexually assaulted more than seven times the rate for everyone else. One reason the rate is so high - because there's rarely a successful prosecution, and that means a perpetrator is free to rape again. Most victims with an intellectual disability never report an assault. Prosecutor Robert Laurino...

LAURINO: These are individuals who tend not to come forward. Sometimes they don't even understand that they've been abused because of their level of functioning.

SHAPIRO: Or they can't describe what happened in detail or in the exact time sequence. Those things matter in court. For years, other prosecutors wouldn't touch these cases.

LAURINO: The general perception was that these are unwinnable.

SHAPIRO: Robert Laurino's successful prosecution at Glen Ridge changed that at least a little. He started traveling around the country to conferences where he'd tell other prosecutors how to prosecute these cases.

LAURINO: To show that these cases are in fact winnable, and that has kind of trickled down I think. They take a lot of work. But if you invest in them, they are winnable, and it's a great feeling. You can help somebody who really can't help themselves.

SHAPIRO: In Essex County, N.J., 25 years after Glen Ridge, Laurino and his prosecutors are showing how to do the work.

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KATHLEEN LYONS-BOSWICK: Good morning, Your Honor - Kathleen Lyons-Boswick for the state.

SHAPIRO: On this morning at the Essex County Courthouse, Assistant Prosecutor Kathleen Lyons-Boswick argues in the case of Khrishad Clark, a man charged with kidnapping a woman with an intellectual disability and raping her in the back of his van. In a letter to NPR and in court, Clark said evidence will clear him of rape.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Sir, do you swear or affirm to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

KHRISHAD CLARK: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Please state your name for the record.

CLARK: Khrishad Clark.

SHAPIRO: That's from a preliminary hearing last year. Clark's trial is set to start later this year. In May of 2016, a woman, 29 years old, wandered away from the house where she lived. Later she'd tell police she wanted to go find her father. She walked over to a phone store without any money, thinking she could buy a phone and call him. Then she disappeared. Police searched for the woman late into the night. One detective who was still looking at 4 in the morning saw a van drive up near the woman's house. This tiny woman shaking with fear, he said, got out. The officer stopped the driver, Khrishad Clark.

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LYONS-BOSWICK: So we're at the Child Advocacy Center. It's called Wynona's House, and it's a standalone building, and...

SHAPIRO: Kathleen Lyons-Boswick, the assistant prosecutor, takes me to the place where police brought the woman that night. After Glen Ridge, prosecutors, lawmakers and state officials in New Jersey looked for better ways to prosecute cases where people with intellectual disabilities were abused. One thing they did - they applied some of the best practices for prosecuting crimes against children and built this center to serve victims, both children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

It's a two-story brick building in Newark. On the first floor, the walls are painted with colorful balloons, rainbows and birds. That's where there's a nurse and therapists who counsel survivors of abuse. Detectives and prosecutors have offices next to each other. That makes it easier to work together. But they're upstairs, their guns and badges out of view.

LYONS-BOSWICK: So we don't want guns and badges in front of them. That's really important to keep it child-friendly.

SHAPIRO: That night, the woman was interviewed just once by two detectives. An assistant prosecutor watched from across the hall on a computer. Adults with intellectual disabilities are not children, but some things can help with both. People with intellectual disabilities and young children, too, think in literal ways. Questions with abstract concepts like time or metaphors can be confusing. Every cop and prosecutor here gets training in interview technique on how to ask concrete questions. That makes it easier for adults with intellectual disabilities to answer.

LYONS-BOSWICK: A sexual assault that happens in private, in secret - these things don't happen out in the open. You look for all the different building blocks that corroborate the case. And her interview - she was able to describe what happened to her.

SHAPIRO: One other thing was big for prosecutors in this New Jersey case - DNA evidence. The results took months to arrive. First they went to prosecutor Robert Laurino.

LAURINO: So we get an email version of a lab report. I take a look at it.

LYONS-BOSWICK: Well, Bob calls me. He knows when there's a big case, and he'll call and say, just so you know, the DNA's here. So it's very exciting. And I - personally, I jump up and down in my office. I just do. I mean, it just - I get excited because these cases are difficult to prove, and it's helpful when you've got corroborating evidence that strong.

SHAPIRO: At the time of Glen Ridge 25 years ago, DNA wasn't so commonly used. Now it's one of the best tools in these cases. Still, the key to conviction is usually the testimony of the victim. Before this case in New Jersey goes to trial, the prosecutors will spend many extra hours with the woman who was the victim. Recently they took her to the actual courtroom just to see what it looks like. She met the judge. She practiced sitting in the witness chair. Some judges let people with intellectual disabilities avoid the courtroom and take their testimony on videotape. It's hard work. It's extra work. But prosecutor Robert Laurino says it pays off.

LAURINO: There's probably no more satisfying victory that you can get than to be able to convict a person who is of a predatory nature that would actually prey on individuals of this character.

SHAPIRO: There are victories. Police and prosecutors who make the extra effort are showing those convictions, although still rare, are at least possible. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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