News 3 Now investigates: Thousands of victims of sexual assault face hurdles in system designed to bring justice

Detectives have heavy caseloads. Prosecutors don't move forward with all cases, and DNA can only take the investigation so far. The impact on victims is real.

The following story discusses sexual assault, which may be triggering for some individuals. If you need help or would like to talk to someone about rape or sexual assault, contact the Dane County Rape Crisis Center 24/7 at (608) 251-7273. The victim’s name has been changed to protect their identity and safety.

MADISON, Wis. – Jessica wants to move. Out of her house. Out of Columbia County. Anywhere the daily reminder of what happened last April, and what hasn’t happened since, isn’t there.

In the 20 months since she was raped in a wooded area near her house in Lodi, she did everything by the book, getting a rape kit done at a local hospital and telling her story to police. Still, she has no answers into who this stranger was and what their judicial fate will be.

Her story echoes through the lives of more than 5,000 people in Wisconsin who dealt with the aftermath of a sexual assault in 2018. The crime and process afterward is difficult on victims, and from the investigation on, the system presents challenges for those hoping to help.

“I feel like there’s more important things for them to work on,” Jessica, Columbia County.

Capt. Jason Kocovsky oversees detectives at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Department. Though the process is similar to other violent crime investigations, he said sexual assault is different.

“It’s very difficult for a victim in a sexual assault to sit and talk to a complete stranger about a traumatic event that has happened to them,” Kocovsky said. “So they are time consuming when it comes to giving them the time they need to be able to come forward and explain the event in detailed format.”

Though she knows she’s not alone, it’s hard for her to share her story. She fears for her safety, and she is frustrated with law enforcement. She is one of more than 5,000 Wisconsinites who brought their sexual assault to law enforcement in 2018, and many also wait for the justice system to come through for them.

Other limitations for his and other departments come from staffing and resources. Kocovsky said he has a team of six detectives to handle all investigations that the department takes on, sexual assaults only being part of that load. In 2018, Department of Justice data shows the county had 86 reported sexual assaults.

Detectives at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office have a direct view of the jail from their office. The department has six detectives on staff. In 2018, the county had 86 sexual assaults.

Though Kocovsky said his team is trained on how to conduct the sensitive interviews required for these investigations, they get no specialized training for handling the investigation itself compared to other types.

Victims can be left feeling in the dark.

Jessica said after she initially talked to a detective at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office, she never heard back from them unless she called to check in. She said she didn’t know her rape kit had been tested until after News 3 Now contacted the department for comment.

“I feel like there’s more important things for them to work on,” she said.

Kocovsky said there were “several contacts” between her and the detective, though declined to be more specific due to the ongoing investigation.

He said the detective has conducted interviews, gathered evidence and had it and the kit tested. Now the department waits for the next steps from the Madison Crime Lab to come through.

“It’s a little bit like a puzzle,” Daniel Campbell, forensic scientist supervisor.

At the crime lab, analysts pull DNA from the hundreds of pieces of evidence police drop in their care.

Daniel Campbell, a forensic scientist supervisor at the lab, did that work for 17 years. The complexity of sexual assault evidence made it his preferred to analyze.

“We’re dealing with mixtures of cells, mixtures of bodily fluids that are exchanged,” Campbell said. “So you can have a vaginal swab that contains semen. You could have multiple contributors. You could have consensual partners who are involved. And it’s a little bit like a puzzle where you’re trying to sort out and get at the DNA of interest.”

Since starting at the lab, he’s seen technology grow and improve, to a point where results can be found with a high 99 percent certainty of a match that can be stored in a database, called CODIS, for decades.

An analyst at the Madison Crime Lab searches for DNA on a piece of stand-in evidence using a blue light. The DNA will then be stored in a system forever so it can be tested against any potential suspect’s DNA in the future. That match can take anywhere from a few months to years.

He has also seen policy change, such as a recent proposal meant to prevent a backlog of rape kits needing to be tested that’s grown in Wisconsin, which is expected to pass the state Assembly in 2020.

Campbell pointed out the limitations of the crime lab that all the testing won’t necessarily bring a victim justice.

“We talk about whether the DNA is present,” he said. “Does it match a particular person? But we’re not asserting this particular person committed a crime. That’s the job of the courts and the law.”

That’s the next step in the system Jessica knew and was willing to follow, but as time has passed, the DNA hasn’t created a map anywhere. Multiple pieces of evidence and a rape kit haven’t matched to anyone in the system, meaning no answers for detectives at the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office.

Of the next steps, she’s not sure.

“I kind of have told myself that there aren’t going to be, so I personally have to figure out a way, how I’m going to deal with it and go on,” she said. “I’m not quite there yet, but each day is different.”

Campbell said this isn’t rare. He’s seen some DNA not match for more than a decade.

From there, the way forward is still hard.

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The Dane County District Attorney’s office keeps data on how sexual assault cases progress through the system once it gets to them. Data shows the DA has declined to prosecute an average of 43 percent of sexual assault cases referred to them over the past 10 years.

Of the 5,113 sexual assaults reported to law enforcement in 2018 (the most recent year data is available), 1,284 led to a felony case being opened in court, according to state Department of Justice data. Not every sexual assault is classified as a felony.

In Dane County, the district attorney’s office has kept track of how cases have progressed through the system if they get to this level. Since 2007, the county’s top prosecutor declined to move forward with an average of 43 percent of cases referred to him by law enforcement.

In an email to News 3 Now, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said if his office does not believe they can prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt, they are ethically bound not to issue charges.

Ozanne also said the largest problem standing in the way of justice for victims is them not feeling comfortable reporting.

“Victims see what happens in a courtroom,” he said. “They understand how hard it is to reveal that most vulnerable time when they were

Ismael Ozanne

Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said the number one priority for sexual assault should be victim privacy. He said victims need to feel comfortable coming forward in order to make improvements to the system.

violated and do that in a public forum.”

He said to improve that, people need to put victim privacy first and foremost.

He also pushes for more awareness and education on sexual assault, teaching people to trust victims and understand consent.

Progress on the latter might come from a change to early elementary education in Madison Metropolitan School District. In November, the district announced it would be adding consent to class curriculum for 4K through fifth grade.

Ozanne said the conversation needs to continue.

“I think we really need to be talking about trauma,” he said. “We need to talk about the impacts of trauma on memory, on recollection. We need to talk about why it is that we may not want to believe a victim.”

It’s a push Jessica wants too. Despite her pain, while she waits, it’s what works for her now.

She said it’s the best advice she can give.

“The last thing you want to do at first is talk to somebody about it and get help,” she said. “But it’s ten times better if you reach out for help because there are people that want to truly help you.”