A sexual assault conviction upheld Wednesday, December 28, by the Alaska Court of Appeals highlights the challenges Alaska rape victims face when seeking justice, including victim-shaming.
On July 13, 2010, a woman the Court of Appeals identifies as C.M. to protect her privacy was drinking in her grandfather’s apartment, located in the Fairview neighborhood of Anchorage.
C.M.’s brother arrived at the apartment with Tijuan Wyre, but her brother only introduced Wyre as “T.” “[T]he two men brought numerous guns with them,” according to C.M.’s testimony.
She fell asleep in a bedroom. When she woke up, Wyre was removing her underwear, telling her he was going to “mess with [her] for a minute.”
Wyre then raped her, holding a shotgun to her head to keep her from screaming.
C.M. went to the hospital and reported the rape to Anchorage police. They interviewed her brother, but he insisted he did not know the assailant’s name.
Two years later, C.M. noticed a picture of Wyre on her brother’s Facebook page and reported it to police, who were able to identify Wyre.
Wyre initially denied having sex with C.M., but a DNA sample matched the rape kit from 2010.
During trial, Wyre’s public advocate established what the Court of Appeals called an “easy-to-cry-rape theme.” In cross-examination, he suggested that the sex between Wyre and C.M. was consensual:
Wyre’s attorney: If there’s a young man… that you don’t want to have sex with in this room with you, you’re not going to open your legs for him, are you?
Wyre’s attorney: So if he’s trying to open you[r] legs, you’re probably going to have bruises on your thighs or somewhere on your legs because of the pressure it’s going to take to fight you; isn’t that right?
C.M.: I don’t know.
Wyre’s attorney: So should we conclude that you didn’t fight?
The public advocate also asked C.M. if she had recently received “manly attention” from her husband, who she was in the process of divorcing at the time of the rape. The attorney went on to suggest that C.M. had consensual sex with Wyre to “rebel” against her husband.
“How easy it is. How, unfortunately, easy it is to be accused [of] a sexual assault, probably the worst crime you can commit,” Wyre’s attorney told the jury. “How do you even defend against this kind of an accusation? How easy it is for somebody to just say this person sexually assaulted me, after sex has occurred. It is unfortunate, but that’s what has happened here.”
The State responded that the defense was trying to “drag [C.M.] through the mud” after the evidence showed Wyre lied about not having sex with her:
Members of the jury, don’t ever let yourself come to the conclusion that it is easy for a person to claim to be sexually assaulted. You saw what [C.M.] had to go through, you saw that she had to talk to police, that she had to submit to a medical forensic examination. Photos of her naked body had to be taken, DNA collected from her body. And she kept up the case, she wouldn’t let it die, even though the police were out of leads.
Then she had to testify at grand jury, and then she had to come here and submit herself to talking about the worst event of her entire life.
Wyre was convicted of sexual assault and third-degree assault for threatening C.M. with the shotgun.
On appeal, Wyre argued that the State had unfairly bolstered C.M.’s credibility to the jury by emphasizing her willingness to undergo a physical examination and testify at trial.
In its opinion Wednesday, the Court of Appeals characterized the State’s argument differently: “C.M should not be disbelieved under the assumption that it is easy to accuse someone of rape.” (emphasis in original)
The Court of Appeals noted the State’s argument was a direct rebuttal to “the defense attorney’s assertion that, because a rape is easy to allege, C.M. should be disbelieved.”
“Viewing the record as a whole, we conclude that the State’s argument that C.M. was worthy of belief merely because she testified was but a small part of the State’s argument that otherwise properly focused on the evidence and the law. This brief impropriety did not divest the trial of its fundamental fairness,” the Court of Appeals ruled.
Wyre also argued that testimony from the examining nurse, who determined C.M.’s demeanor was consistent with her allegations, ran counter to the 1996 Court of Appeals decision in Williams v State. In that case, a police officer testified that the demeanor of two girls was consistent with other sexually abused girls she had encountered.
“As this court has repeatedly held, testimony concerning the behavioral or psychological characteristics of sexual abuse victims is inadmissible ‘when it is used affirmatively, to establish that an alleged victim is in fact a victim — that a particular individual’s claim of abuse is truthful because it is in some characteristic way `consistent’ with typical reports of abuse,'” the Court of Appeals wrote in Williams.
“But here, the prosecutor was not asking the nurse to compare C.M. to other people, but only to opine whether her physical condition was consistent with the history that C.M. had related,” the court said Wednesday. “Thus the prosecutor did not argue that C.M.’s demeanor was typical of rape victims.”
The Court of Appeals ruled that the superior court did not commit plain error in allowing the nurse’s testimony.