Scales of justice

When prosecutors charged a 25-year-old Casper man with attempted murder in February, his name and mugshot were immediately published by news outlets across town.

His name, his age and the charges against him were publicly available in the county jail log. Police confirmed that he was the suspect in the shooting. After his initial appearance in county circuit court, his name was listed in the public court dockets.

But when a man was charged with first-degree sexual assault in September for allegedly pinning down a teenage girl and molesting her, it took nearly six months before the public knew of the crime and the person who was suspected of committing it.

The difference? Under Wyoming law, a person charged with sex crimes has extra protection to keep his or her identity concealed until their case reaches district court, where felony cases are heard.

While some say those accused of sexual assault face a stigma different than accusations of other crimes, advocacy groups say such a law simply perpetuates long-held cultural myths that victims of sexual assault are less trustworthy than other victims. One district prosecutor said the law hampers his ability to honestly discuss cases with media and the public.

The statute prohibits public employees — law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, court staff and others — from naming or releasing information that could identify a victim of a sex crime or the alleged perpetrator until that case reaches district court. Those who willingly name victims or defendants in sexual assault cases can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $750 fine.

In theory, that process should take a few weeks. After a defendant’s initial court appearance, the court has up to 10 days to host a preliminary hearing if the person remains incarcerated or up to 20 days if that person is released on bond. During a preliminary hearing, a circuit court judge hears the evidence in the case and determines whether there is enough to move the case to district court, where the case becomes public record.

In practice, however, the process can sometimes take months, delaying the public’s knowledge of the alleged crime far past the arrest date. Unless reporters receive a tip about a case and attend the initial appearance or preliminary hearing, records of the case are effectively inaccessible. A circuit court clerk isn’t allowed to look up a file by the defendant’s name for a member of the public because that would positively identify the suspect, even if the name is redacted in all the documents. Sexual assault cases do not appear in the publicly accessible statewide database of circuit court cases.

“It was just shocking when I first discovered (the law),” one local advocate said.

Origin of law

As long as he’s been practicing, Natrona County District Attorney Mike Blonigen remembers some version of the law existing in Wyoming statutes. Previous reporting indicates that before 2007 it had been illegal for public employees to release the names of defendants and victims in sexual assault cases before the case reached the circuit court.

However, the law was changed in 2007 to prohibit the release of that information until the case reached district court as part of a larger bill to amend sexual assault statutes. A Wyoming Supreme Court Chief Justice asked the Legislature’s joint judiciary committee to consider the change due to the recent creation of the circuit court system. Prior to creation of the circuit courts, sexual assault cases were always filed in district courts.

The justice, Barton Voigt, said at the time that he wasn’t sure legislators knew defendants were being named as soon as their case was filed in circuit court. He said he assumed lawmakers had previously created laws protecting the identity of sexual assault defendants because of the serious nature of the crime.

“It’s not like robbing a bank,” he said in a letter to the chairmen of the committee, according to a story published in the Star-Tribune from the time. “It’s more of a moral turpitude situation.”

Legislators who considered the bill sought to balance the public’s right to know about alleged criminals in their community and protecting the identities of the defendants.

“It’s just a delicate balance between protecting the anonymity of the victim, and also of the actor, especially if he’s innocent, and on the other side, letting the public know that this crime has occurred, and who this actor is,” one former Jackson legislator said.

At first, the law prohibited public employees from releasing the name of defendants but was amended in 2015 to also prohibit “any other information reasonably likely to disclose” the identity of the suspect. Previously, that broader category of information applied only to victims’ identities.

The law does allow judges to authorize the release of that information and also allows law enforcement to release victim and suspect identities to aid an arrest or to locate a minor victim who has been missing. In Natrona County, the names of those who are accused of sexual assault are stated during hearings in Circuit Court, while victims are generally identified by their initials.

A 2014 Wyoming Supreme Court decision created standards for state courts to follow regarding the identities in sexual assault cases. The Court ruled that the Converse County Circuit Court violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution when it closed all court proceedings and sealed documents in a sexual assault case involving a juvenile victim.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee in 2013 voted 5-4 in favor of a bill that would have removed the protections for defendants. Proponents of the bill argued that suspects in sexual assault cases should be treated the same as suspects in other types of crimes. Opponents of the bill said that being accused of sexual assault carried a different stigma than being accused of other crimes.

Representatives from three local and national organizations that work on sexual assault issues said they weren’t aware of any other state that has a similar law that protects the identities of alleged perpetrators.

“If this were a good idea that benefited communities and public safety, you would think more states would adopt similar laws,” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “This is something that’s not standard.”

Perpetuating a myth or protecting due process?

Representatives from both local and national organizations said that the law only perpetuates the myth that victims of sexual assault are less trustworthy than victims of other crimes.

Blonigen, the district attorney, disputed the claim that the law was necessary to protect the privacy of victims of sexual assault. Instead, he said the law simply reflects a “historical suspicion” of those who report sexual assault.

“What is the purpose of it? There’s no other crime we have that this law applies,” he said. “If this is truly to protect the victim, how come at every turn it seems to say their claims aren’t worth airing?”

An overview of academic research compiled by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center shows that between 2 and 10 percent of sexual assaults reported are later determined to be false. Additional research has shown that a majority of sexual assaults are never reported to law enforcement.

Blonigen also said the law complicates his ability to explain to the public why he didn’t file charges in specific cases. It limits public discussion about an issue that demands thorough and thoughtful community discussion.

“Where I see this having an impact is cases where charges are never filed,” he said. “The public never knows why the charges weren’t filed, whether it’s a good reason, a bad reason or any reason at all.”

Blonigen said he’s approached legislators over the years about his concerns with the law but that there seems to be little to no interest in changing it.

“It’s never a priority of any sort,” he said. “You mention this and they say “huh” and you never hear about it again. That’s about as far as the conversation gets.”

Taylor Courtney, an investigator with the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office who handles many of the agency’s sexual assault cases, said the law neither helps nor hinders the investigative process. He noted that it’s standard practice for law enforcement to withhold any information about a case while it is still under investigation. That information is also protected from the public by Wyoming’s public records laws.

The parts of the statute that protect a victim’s identity do help people feel more comfortable reporting an assault, he said.

“That’s always a chief concern with a victim, being able to maintain privacy and have people not find out who they are,” he said.

Tara Muir, policy director of the Wyoming Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, said that it’s good that victims’ identities are protected, though many states don’t have a law explicitly forbidding the release of their names to the public. Many groups assume news media will follow standard journalistic practice and not release the name of sex assault victims.

Muir hopes to address the law with the joint judiciary committee during the next legislative interim session. She said that the public has a right to know about the alleged crimes in their communities.

“This statute certainly perpetuates this myth that victims lie and that we need to protect these poor innocents, who are usually men, that perpetuate these crimes,” she said.

While there should be better accountability for lawmakers and those who lead the state’s criminal justice system, average people can be part of the solution as well, Muir said. She said that the average person can help by supporting organizations in their communities that work to prevent these crimes, to have age-appropriate conversations with children about consent and healthy sexuality and knowing who their elected officials are.

Houser, the representative from the national resource center, said that she can’t see the public benefit to protecting the identity of those charged with sexual assault. It’s important to protect the identity of victims because they often fear retaliation from their rapist for reporting. If their identities were not protected, it’s likely that fewer people would come forward to report, she said. In contrast, naming people charged with sexual assault acts as a deterrent.

“I can’t see what public benefit comes from treating the victim and the alleged perpetrator the same,” she said.

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