How charging someone with sexual assault works

I would like to begin by noting that neither I nor any officer in this jurisdiction will comment upon, discuss or otherwise disclose confidential matters related to any ongoing investigation or prosecution in Uinta County. It is not only unethical but, frankly, it would compromise the integrity of the investigation and any potential prosecution.

The confidential nature of an investigation is compounded when confronted with other factors, most specifically including issues relating to juveniles and sexual assaults.

For educational purposes, though, I want to take the opportunity to illuminate the process to you all. When a person makes a complaint of any nature, it is first assessed by the officer as to whether it constitutes a civil or criminal nature.

If it is civil alone, the officer will attempt to provide guidance and assistance to the extent that he or she is permitted within the confines of their knowledge and ability, but generally the officer will have a very limited role.

If the complaint is criminal in nature, however, an investigation will ensue, which would involve anything from interviewing parties that may have knowledge of the contents of the complaint to collecting physical evidence, conducting research, etc.

On a very personal level I understand the horror of sexual assault for an alleged victim. Neither the investigating officer(s) nor I place blame or question on a delayed report for sexual assault.  It is not uncommon for these crimes to remain unreported for days, months, years or even decades.

The difficult reality, however, is that with the passage of time, potential evidence is lost.  Individuals shower, wash clothing and linens, throw away items due to age, etc., and any sign of physical injury or invasion upon a victim also heals and diminishes.

Thus, when a sexual assault is not reported for days, months or years, evidence that expands beyond the word of the alleged victim is often lost before law enforcement can even attempt to investigate the crime. At that juncture, then, the entirety of a potential criminal prosecution relies solely upon the account of a victim.

I have had the honor of working with many members of law enforcement, but I will take this brief opportunity to publicly note my respect for Uinta County Sheriff’s Office Deputy Brooke Hale.

Deputy Hale has an instinctive desire to “get to the bottom” of a matter and she will not stop until she is confident she has exhausted every possible path. She is clear in her duty to seek justice — not a conviction — and she thoroughly identifies both sides of every issue in the case.  

She has been requested to provide assistance at some juncture to nearly every law enforcement agency in Uinta County, and she professionally addresses each matter regardless of who is involved. Her eye is not, and never has been, on the “end” result but, rather, to seek as much information as possible. This attention to detail and duty is provided to all matters — from a misdemeanor theft to sexual assault or murder.

It is not her job to determine whether a person should be charged but, rather, to thoroughly investigate the complaint and submit the issue to my office. I have not known or experienced any bias or preference from Deputy Hale or Sheriff Doug Matthews in any matter that I have addressed.

What many in the public may not know is that it is not the investigating officer, his or her supervisor, or even the judge who determines when, where and how a person will be charged with a crime. That job lies solely in the discretion of the prosecuting attorney and here, locally, that means that the decision lies solely with me.

For any officer in Uinta County who is addressing a violation of state law — be it a misdemeanor or felony — those investigations are submitted to my office for review and consideration. It is then determined how each matter will be addressed, including a decline to prosecute in perpetuity, a decline to prosecute pending further information, or a prosecution in circuit or district court.

Generally, only at the time of sentencing is another authority involved and that would be the judge.

My office has handled numerous sexual assault, incest and molestation cases over the past three years. Each case is assessed to evaluate the weight of the evidence and credibility of the witnesses to determine if (1) there is probable cause to believe that a crime has occurred; and (2) that there is a reasonable probability that the state can meet its burden to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.

Due to the inevitable attack on a victim’s credibility and virtue in a sexual assault case, the potential emotional effect of a jury acquittal and the strength of an alleged victim’s account are also considered in determinations of prosecution.

As noted, these cases often remain unreported for years, which directly results in the loss of potential corroborating physical evidence and an individual’s recollection and consistency in statements are often also compromised with the passage of time.

If and when I make a determination not to pursue a criminal prosecution of an allegation of sexual assault, I always ensure that my door is open to speak face to face with the victim to explain my reasoning and attempt to provide some solace with the trauma of the event.

As a matter of law, the names of individuals accused of committing a crime as a juvenile are not publicly disclosed. The names of alleged victims of sexual assault are redacted in nearly all court documents, regardless of age, and the victim is generally only referred to by name in open court.

Further, and more pertinently, Wyoming statute specifically prohibits — except in very rare circumstances — the public disclosure of an accused person’s name in sexual assault cases unless and until the state has met its burden to bring the matter to the district court by filing a felony criminal information. This statutory protection provided by the Wyoming Legislature is in recognition of the public stigma and scrutiny associated with being accused of a heinous crime.

It also serves, however, to ensure that any potential prosecution is not compromised by public pressure, derision or prejudice unless and until a person has been provided due process and the constitutional right of a presumption of innocence, unless and until he or she is proven beyond a reasonable doubt to be guilty of a crime by a jury of his or her peers.

Again, neither I nor law enforcement will discuss specifics of any matter pending for investigation or prosecution, but I remain open and willing to account to any citizen of Uinta County the duties and tasks of this office and to answer any criticism therewith.


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