Since little prior research has explored how prosecutors perceive and use biological and injury evidence in sexual assault cases, the current qualitative study conducted semi-structured interviews with assistant district attorneys (ADAs) working in an urban district attorney’s office in the northeastern United States.
ADAs were asked to describe how biological and injury evidence could be probative and their strategies for using this evidence. The interviews suggest that prosecutors perceive the probative value of biological and injury evidence on a continuum, varying based on case characteristics. Prosecutors felt that undergoing a forensic medical examination supported victims’ credibility. Biological evidence bolstered victims’ credibility if it matched the victim’s account better than the defendant’s. They perceived DNA evidence as helpful when it identified unknown suspects, confirmed identification of suspects by other means, or rebutted defendants’ denial of sexual contact. DNA evidence was also helpful when victims were incapacitated, too traumatized to recall or talk about the assault, or too young to identify assailants, and when police used the information in interrogating suspects. The biggest limitation to biological evidence cited by prosecutors was overcoming the consent defense. The ADAs reported they used DNA evidence even when it was not particularly probative, because it confirms the correct person is being prosecuted; it communicates the victim’s and prosecution’s seriousness; and it meets jury expectations in trials. Prosecutors found injury evidence useful because it corroborated victims’ accounts and helped refute defendant claims of consensual sex. The findings may assist in educating others about biological and injury evidence in these cases and could inspire professionals and advocates to work to develop and support a broad range of investigative methods. (publisher abstract modified)
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