Reality Check: Pennsylvania's Rape Laws Perpetuate the Myths

It’s easier to get away with sexual assault in Pennsylvania than anywhere else in U.S.

By Tara Murtha
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 10 | Posted Jun. 22, 2011

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Accused rapists have more advantage in Pennsylvania courts than any other state in the country, or even military court. As the only state that doesn’t allow expert witnesses to testify in sexual assault trials, Pennsylvania allows, endorses even, fiction over fact when prosecuting cases of sexual assault. We routinely use court-qualified forensic, medical and psychology experts as educational tools for the jury, since the average juror isn’t expected to be knowledgeable enough in subjects such as blood patterns, physical or mental illnesses to draw rational conclusions without context. But experts aren’t allowed to educate juries on behaviors of sexual assault victims and assailants. Instead, we leave jurors to reach biased verdicts based on false information gleaned from television and movies.

“We’ve had several cases where juries have acquitted serial rapists because they felt the victims’ behavior after the assault was counterintuitive,” says Deborah Harley, chief of the Family Violence and Sexual Assault Unit of the District Attorney’s Office. “One such example would be Jeffrey Marsalis.”

Marsalis, known as the “ rapist,” stood trial twice in Philadelphia on rape charges. All in all, 21 women—some of whom didn’t even want to endure the stress of trial—came forward with nearly identical stories of being dined, drugged and then waking up next to Marsalis having “had sex” with little or no recollection of the event. In the morning, Marsalis, a con man who maintained false identities as a doctor, CIA agent and astronaut, would serve the alleged victims coffee with a smile.

In 2006, Marsalis was tried on three counts of rape against three women. In 2007, he was charged with 25 counts of rape against seven women.

Marsalis was acquitted of all charges in the first trial. In the second trial, “the jury acquitted on all charges except for two counts of sexual assault,” says Harley. “[The jury was] not educated on victim behavior. That was a huge, huge obstacle.”

“Some of the victims were in denial, some blamed themselves. They didn’t fight back. Some obviously experienced memory loss because we believe they were drugged,” says Harley.

After two failed prosecutions in Pennsylvania, Marsalis was finally convicted of rape only after attacking a woman and being prosecuted in Idaho.

But there’s hope that Pennsylvania may soon finally level the playing field: HB 1264, a bill introduced by Rep. Cherelle L. Parker (D-200th) and co-sponsored by Rep. Kate Harper (R-Montgomery County), is scheduled to hit the floor of the House this week.

If passed this time—Parker has been trying to push versions of this bill into law since 2007—HB 1264 will finally allow experts to testify regarding common behaviors of sexual assault victims.

Parker says she was directly inspired by the Marsalis case, which she followed in daily papers with increasing horror and frustration.

“Like so many people, I watch Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” she says. “So you think as a layperson and even as a legislator, that you know how victims of sexual assault are supposed to behave. You think they’re supposed to report it to the police, seek counseling and fight back.” After the Marsalis case, Parker held public panels and spoke to psychologists, prosecutors and victims of sexual assault whose attackers were acquitted at trial.

“What people automatically assume about behavior [after being sexually assaulted]—it’s just the opposite. When you have victims of sex crimes not immediately reporting to police, not immediately going to the hospital, someone can look at it and say, ‘Wow, that’s abnormal behavior, we should question if he or she is being truthful,’ but the fact of the matter is that that is normal behavior for victims of assault,” says Parker.

Experts say of the many false assumptions wrapped up in the mythological archetype of “the good victim,” delay in reporting an assault is particularly problematic—and sunk the Marsalis case, among many others.

“The big thing in Pa., the jury perceived these women as having what they quoted as buyer’s remorse,” testified Dr. Veronique Valliere, a clinician who has worked with hundreds of victims of sexual assault, thousands of offenders and conducts Megan’s Law assessments as a member of the PA Sexual Offender Assessment Board, at a public hearing last year. “‘They didn’t like the date so they cried raped.’ And the proof of that was some of these women called him back and said, ‘What did you do to me last night. We need to talk about this.’”

“I wish I could invite you all to sit in a treatment group and go around the circle and say to each offender, ‘How did you get people to not believe the victim?’” testified Dr. Valliere. “And they will say, ‘I got her drunk.’ They’ll say, ‘You know, I told her mother what a liar she was.’ They’ll say, ‘I told him when he came back, you must have liked it, because if you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t keep coming back to see me. So it’s not really rape. You like this.’ And we’re talking about 13-year-old boys.”

Even if, after four years, HB 1264 finally graduates into law, there’s still the troubling matter of jury instruction that directly advises jurors to weigh evidence in a way that contradicts what experts know to be reality.

Buried in standard instructions judges read to jurors is line 4.13A, Failure to Make Prompt Complaint in Certain Sexual Offenses: “The evidence of [name of victim]’s [failure to complain] [delay in making a complaint] does not necessarily make [his] [her] testimony unreliable, but may remove from it the assurance of reliability accompanying the prompt complaint or outcry that the victim of a crime such as this would ordinarily be expected to make.”

Jurors are not instructed to weigh promptness of contacting authorities in cases of any other kinds of physical assault, or any other crime.

While it would make sense to propose eradicating this jury instruction while allowing expert testimony, it seems the biased jury instruction will have to be addressed later, separately.

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Comments 1 - 10 of 10
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1. Fran said... on Jun 22, 2011 at 08:03AM

“Thank God. This bill is long overdue.”

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2. Anonymous said... on Jul 25, 2011 at 11:20PM

“Pa is stupid! If there are so many women complaining that they where raped by the same man doesn't make sense to believe them? How dumb is that I was rapes 3x in a matter of hrs last yr. and the fool is still running the streets. How stupid and lazy can this justice system get. Rape is not a JOKE! Wake up PA! WAKE WORLD! This world is so focused war and finding excuses for war for greed that the neglect real life issuses.”

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3. anonymous said... on Oct 26, 2012 at 04:30PM

“Can you believe, in Pa. you have to prove rape was responsible for your pregnancy, but if you are raped forcibly, Republican legislators in Congress believe your body shuts down and you can't get pregnant. Then if you have baby and are single in Pa. you must prove that it was a product of rape (which we all know won't get a woman pregnant). Then again, if you are raped some in Congress feel that God will gift you with a baby, so how can Pennsylvania deny the poor baby (God''s gift) support. Then again, we all know that the Republicans and the Tea Party only give lip service to God.”

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4. Anonymous said... on Mar 8, 2013 at 06:17AM

“my daughter was sexually assaulted by 2 neighbors. they were 20 and 22, she was 12. They were arrested and later released on bail. One had made admissions and tried for a plea. My daughter said NO DEAL. we now are awaiting the next phase, in the meantime, she feels like she cannot do anything. Like she is a prisoner in her own home..she was recently at the mall and he seeked her out followed her into a store and stared at her. I believe in attempt to intimidate her. we are seeking bail revocation. However, he is still out, parading around. Laws need to change! They need to take less emphasis off of drug dealers and way more attention to violent offenders!!! THese laws are backwards and are teaching our youth, there is no reason to tell because the offenders walk.”

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5. paula said... on Oct 12, 2014 at 07:50PM

“I was raped so was so many others in the same way the same group at our job. the police know they video taped all of there crimes for each other.
p h r c 333 market street and there lawyer meyer help them get away with it .even with dozens of the same complaints the board of transportation will not fire any of them and yet no one fired any of them. i've been through a few attorneys they just keep threatening them there afraid. i"m still being stalked and terrorized at work every day I cant go any where new they will only follow. I need help with this rape cult in hbg pa.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Jul 24, 2015 at 02:36AM

“I was raped in Philadelphia PA back in 1994! I had just graduated 8th grade a few weeks prior! I was hanging out at Heitzman (Amber) playground that day at the TAPS tournaments with a bunch of the older and younger Amber click or gang or whatever u want to call us, them. There were also a few police officers hanging out with us. After the tournament, I went to hang out with a guy I had been talking to. He was one of the older guys, in his 20s! (I know I was so wrong for talking n hanging out with the older guys, but when I was that young, I thought it was so cool that an older guy even looked my way. Well, the guy I was talking to went to make another beer run and told me to wait there. There were two guys there. While waiting, I went to the bathroom. One of the guys came into the bathroom, pushed me down, I hit my head on the sink, and he raped me. I ran out of the house and down the street and right into my older sister! I was crying hysterically and screamed out "he raped me!”

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7. Anonymous said... on Jul 24, 2015 at 02:46AM

“(Cont. It wouldn't let me type anymore so I'm continuing here) "He raped me!" My sister rite away asked one of the neighbors that came out after hearing me screaming to use their phone. She called 911. Unfortunately, the officers that came out was two of the ones from the playground earlier that day! The officer that was driving, was the one hanging out with my rapist! They were good friends! He said to my sister, " ma'am your sister is drunk. She is underaged! Are you sure you want to report an incident because we might wind up obligated to arrest her for underaged drinking?" She said she wasn't worried about that and were they seriously talking to her about my drinking instead of worrying about me being raped! So her and I were taking to the Victims detective unit place. We were told to go home and come back in the morning when I wasn't intoxicated to give my statement. We went back the next day, after I showered a million times and scrubbed my entire body ( because we weren't told j”

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8. Anonymous said... on Jul 24, 2015 at 02:54AM

“(Cont again) ( just how much ALL my physical evidence would be washed off!!) We went back and they took my statement and they took me to the er for a rape kit (yes knowing nothing would show up at this point!) Later after we got home, a man from the block the rape occurred on, came around to my house and informed us that he called 911 n reported 2 men planning to rape a young girl on the porch across from him! Can u believe NO cops came out to stop my rape?!! I was stalked, called a liar n every other name n the book by all the amber click until court! On the day of court the man called n said he was at the hospital with his wife who just had a heart attack, but the da didn't ask for a continuance! Add no witness with no physical evidence the judge threw my case out n said to my rapist, " I am not saying you are not a rapist! I'm just saying today we can not prove it with just the victim's word against your word and no witnesses or evidence" then apologized to me for the justice system”

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9. Anonymous said... on Jul 24, 2015 at 03:04AM

“(Sorry for another Cont)"failing me,the police officers failing to give me a rape kit the night of,and the da not asking for a new court date!Wth?!! Is that apology supposed to make me feel better?! It hasn't! I still have nightmares and flash backs!21 years later,And I'm still messed up over it!Even to the point where I was taken to a motel in NJ a few years later and was raped again n drugged to the point where I still don't know the extent of everything that happened! I just know I ran into another room, naked n into their shower scrubbing my body!Then walked all the way back home to Philly!Never tried to report it after what happened the 1st time! It sickens me to my soul to know how us women (n young girls) r treated after being raped! Is this city serious?Criminals get more time for smoking weed then raping someone! They get more for voluntarily prostituting then for men raping someone! Something has to change!We deserve to be protected n they deserve punishment for their crimes!”

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10. Anonymous said... on Aug 10, 2015 at 11:32PM

“Philadelphia SVU is just as bad as the rapist . They are the most incompetent arrogant idiots ever to exist . I know now why women don't report it . All men in this unit should be fired . They made a very young woman who was scared and confused feel like the criminal . Refused to do physical exam . And refused to allow her parent to be present because she was over 18 . She now suffers from PTSD . Nightmares every time she closed her eyes , panic attacks, depression , anxiety .But was told she wasn't raped . Nightmares don't lie. Sad how those who swear to serve and protect fail these victims . And how are laws keep letting them out . This city has thoroughly disgusted me . The city I loved has made me embarrassed to say I'm from Philadelphia .”


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