Did D.A.’s Office Refuse to Charge Alleged Sexual Assaulter Because He Was Drunk?

Vourvoulias: District Attorney's Office is now saying it will do some "additional investigation."

The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. | Photo by John Locher/AP

The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. | Photo by John Locher/AP

Gwen Snyder did exactly what the District Attorney Seth Williams‘ Office says on its website a victim of sexual assault should do: She called the Philadelphia Police Department Special Victims Unit, and was transported to the Philadelphia Sexual Assault Response Center to file a report.

Since the alleged incident — Snyder says a fellow Pennsylvania delegate for Bernie Sanders made sexual contact with her that she did not consent to — took place July 27th at the bar of a convention hotel during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, she also told her story to state Democratic Party members and DNC staffers, in the hopes that the alleged assaulter would be stripped of his convention credentials. She spoke to employees at the hotel and asked them to expel the man.

Snyder did everything we tell victims of indecent and sexual assault they need to do. And at every point, the institutions involved have seemingly failed her. 

The convention members and staffers apparently hadn’t been adequately trained to deal with reports of assault and harassment. The hotel, she said, cited an inexplicable policy of having to evict both the victim and the alleged attacker (or neither of them). And when Snyder spoke to her SVU detective on August 12th, she says she was told the District Attorney’s Office had declined to prosecute.

Cameron Kline, communications director and spokesperson for the D.A.’s Office, confirmed to Philadelphia magazine on the morning of Monday, August 15th, that “officially, the D.A.’s Office does not comment as a matter of policy about its charging decisions, but the incident was thoroughly investigated, and at the conclusion of the investigation the decision was made not to charge.”

Worse, when Snyder later called Jim Carpenter, the assistant district attorney who is chief of family violence and sexual assault investigations, to find out why, she says she was told one of the reasons they “decided not to prosecute was because my attacker had been drinking to excess. I was told that [the] office believed that because he was drunk, prosecutors might not be able to ‘prove beyond a reasonable doubt’ to a jury that ‘he knew [I] hadn’t given consent.’” 

If that alleged rationale doesn’t chill your blood, it should.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s publication “Alcohol and Sexual Assault” states that “conservative estimates of sexual assault prevalence suggest that 25 percent of American women have experienced sexual assault, including rape. Approximately one-half of those cases involve alcohol consumption by the perpetrator, victim, or both.” Campus Safety magazine states on its website that “In 1 in 3 sexual assaults, the perpetrator was intoxicated,” and that “90 percent of acquaintance rapes involve alcohol.”

The D.A.’s response galvanized Snyder. She had already issued an open letter to Vice President Joe Biden and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, asking them to institute better assault and harassment procedures at future Democratic conventions. Now she has also put together an online petition titled “DA Williams, Don’t Let Alcohol Be A Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free Card for Sexual Violence,” which has collected nearly 300 signatures so far.

On August 15th, Snyder said she met in person with Carpenter and a victim’s advocate from the D.A.’s Office to further discuss her case.

“Ms. Snyder just left the office after talking with our Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit,” D.A. spokesman Kline said in a 6:48 p.m. email to this magazine that same day, “so we are going to do some additional investigation based on our conversation with her.”

At the meeting, Snyder says, the ADA “advised me not to go forward with the petition or talk to the press … the victim’s advocate sort of nodded and said something supportive about the press part. They told me that if I kept making public statements, the defense would compare them and look for inconsistencies and use them against me.”

In response to this claim, Kline says that since he was not in the room for that discussion, “It would be inappropriate to comment on it.”

While the suggested gag on speaking to the press seems to have some legal wisdom behind it (a lawyer not involved in the case told me that defense lawyers do, indeed, look for minor inconsistencies in accounts in an attempt to undercut credibility), the request to remove the petition seems to speak to a different concern — the public attention Snyder’s experience has garnered in Philadelphia and nationally, and from publications like Philadelphia magazine, Jezebel and City & State PA.

Snyder herself says she isn’t seeking to shame the D.A.’s Office, or even the DNC or the hotel whose procedures failed her. She simply wants processes and procedures to change so that women who report sexual violence, harassment or indecent assaults have a chance at justice. 

The petition is still up.

Snyder may not be speaking to the press as fully as she might otherwise be inclined to, but she’s still answering our questions.

And she’s still waiting on the D.A.’s Office. Snyder says they’ve told her they’ll let her know, finally, whether they’ll prosecute or not by this coming Monday.

Justice delayed? We’ll see.

Sabrina Vourvoulias is an award-winning columnist with bylines at The Guardian USCity & State, Tor.com and Strange Horizons. Her novel, Ink, was named one of Latinidad’s Best Books of 2012. Follow her on Twitter @followthelede.