Experts: Lawmaker rape case illustrates survivors’ trauma

Apr 29, 2022, 9:29 AM | Updated: Apr 30, 2022, 9:10 am
District Judge Michael Reardon confers with attorneys during the second day of testimony in the rap...

District Judge Michael Reardon confers with attorneys during the second day of testimony in the rape trial of former Idaho state Rep. Aaron von Ehlinger, right, at the Ada County Courthouse, Thursday, April 28, 2022, in Boise, Idaho. (Brian Myrick/The Idaho Press-Tribune via AP, Pool)

(Brian Myrick/The Idaho Press-Tribune via AP, Pool)

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — When a legislative intern came forward with rape allegations against an Idaho state lawmaker last year, she was subjected to months of online harassment and abuse.

She later testified about the attack at an ethics hearing, and some of the lawmaker’s supporters filmed her and chased her through the Statehouse.

This week, the young woman took the stand to testify in his criminal trial and became so distraught she fled the courtroom.

Aaron von Ehlinger’s rape conviction Friday was a rare victory for prosecutors in a criminal justice system that can be fraught with trauma for sexual assault survivors, experts say.

Only about a third of sexual assaults are reported to police, according to to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, and only about 5% of assaults result in an arrest. Convictions are even rarer, with only about 2.8% of sexual assaults resulting in felony convictions.

Put another way, about 972 of every 1,000 perpetrators of sexual assault will never face a conviction, according to the organization.

“It really means that we are not very good at prosecuting it and that the survivors very rarely get the desired results,” said Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at John Jay College with the City University of New York and an expert in sexual assault prevention and public policy. “We have to really focus on prevention. I think that’s where we’re going to see the largest change.”

Von Ehlinger, a former Republican state lawmaker, was found guilty of rape and faces anywhere from a year to life in prison when he is sentenced this summer. The jury acquitted the 39-year-old on a second count of sexual penetration with a foreign object.

Von Ehlinger maintained during the trial that the two had consensual sex. His attorney Jon Cox did not respond to a request for comment.

The verdict came after a dramatic trial in which the young woman fled the witness stand during testimony, saying “I can’t do this.”

Fourth District Judge Michael Reardon instructed the jury to disregard her statements since the defense couldn’t cross-examine her. He then asked the defense if they wanted to request a mistrial — a step that would have forced a do-over for the entire trial — but Cox declined. Cox hasn’t said if von Ehlinger intends to appeal.

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted, and has referred to the woman in this case as “Jane Doe” at her request.

Doe was 19 and interning at the Idaho Statehouse when she met von Ehlinger and agreed to go to dinner with him.

But the night of March 9, 2021, was not the networking opportunity she expected, she later told investigators. Instead, she said, von Ehlinger brought her back to his apartment under false pretenses, overpowered her and forced her to perform oral sex while he straddled her chest, pinning her arms with his knees.

Doe reported the assault to her supervisor at the Statehouse on March 11, followed by police. She underwent a sexual assault examination, which revealed DNA that matched von Ehlinger.

Survivors must weigh the risk of not being understood or believed when they report, Jeglic said, as well as the intrusiveness of the investigation process.

“While most of the SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) nurses are well-trained, having someone touch you and look at your private parts and ask you intimate questions immediately after can feel like another violation,” Jeglic said.

For von Ehlinger, the assault report triggered a legislative ethics investigation, and a legislative committee required Doe to testify during the hearing. A black fabric screen protected her from view during her testimony in the packed public hearing, but as she tried to leave the Statehouse some of von Ehlinger’s supporters chased her, filming her as she sunk to the floor, distraught.

The ethics committee recommended von Ehlinger be banned from the Statehouse, and he resigned.

For Doe, the report triggered an avalanche of additional trauma and harassment. Supporters of von Ehlinger doxxed her by releasing her name, photo and personal details about her life in far-right blogs and social media posts. One person even wore mocking costumes to political events with a sash emblazoned with her name. While some lawmakers lauded her courage in coming forward, others questioned her integrity or called her names like “honey trap.”

“The constant attack on her really prevented her from starting the healing process,” said Ada County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Katelyn Farley, who argued the case against von Ehlinger. “Hopefully it doesn’t happen again to future victims, but it is something that happens all the time at this point.”

Data from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that as many as one-fifth of sexual violence survivors who chose not to report their crimes to police cited the fear of retaliation as a primary reason.

“This was a very public case, so people got to see kind of a real-time view into why people don’t report sexual assaults: What a tough journey it is, and the scrutiny they face, and the ongoing trauma of having to retell your story and have people attack you constantly,” said Annie Hightower, director of law and policy with the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence. The organization helps survivors navigate criminal justice system and provides civil legal services, and is representing Jane Doe.

That trauma was evident when Doe took the stand on the second day of the trial. She struggled to stay focused on the prosecutor, her gaze shifting between the exit doors, the packed gallery and the defense table where von Ehlinger sat. She haltingly described the first moments of the assault before abruptly standing up, saying “I can’t do this,” and rushing out of the courtroom.

It’s not uncommon for survivors to experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder when recounting an assault, said Jeglic, with symptoms like increased heart rate and sweating.

“If the trauma is overwhelming you might see symptoms of dissociation — where they look like they space out. They might feel jittery or have difficulty concentrating. The fight or flight reflex is activated at that point, because it feels like they might be back in that situation,” Jeglic said.

Watching Doe leave the trial was “heart-wrenching,” Farley said. But deputy prosecutor Whitney Welsh, who worked with Farley on the case, noted that it was also a sign of Doe’s agency.

“I think it’s important that she decided to walk in the room, and she also decided to walk out — those were her choices,” Welsh said.

Successful prosecutions in cases like von Ehlinger can help the public better understand the dynamics of power and control in sexual assault cases, Jeglic said.

“I think one of the issues that we face as a society is the understanding of consent, what a rape looks like, and how power differentials come into play,” she said. “The more success we have in prosecutions, and the more we can prevent these things from happening to begin with, the better.”

The conviction was a bittersweet moment in the midst of a tough journey, said Hightower.

“The focus should be on my client and her healing — what happened today doesn’t heal her, right? But the team brought some little form of justice today,” Hightower said. “I hope this will help survivors — other survivors who maybe didn’t come forward, or are thinking of coming forward — to help them know that people believe them.”

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Experts: Lawmaker rape case illustrates survivors’ trauma