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Digg Dialog Recap: How Not To Handle A Rape Investigation

Missed the discussion? Here are the highlights.

On Thursday, reporters T. Christian Miller (ProPublica) and Ken Armstrong (The Marshall Project) and retired San Diego Police Sgt. Joanne Archambault (now at End Violence Against Women) took questions on Digg about our groundbreaking joint investigation, "An Unbelievable Story of Rape." Read some of the highlights below, and head to Digg to see the whole conversation.

An 18 year old girl reported a brutal assault. The police called her a liar. Then there was an investigation.
An Unbelievable Story of Rape
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Anyone else think this story underlines a need for more women in law enforcement? Not to paint the situation as so black and white, but the story does show that the two cops that dismissed Marie's rape claim were men, to whom rape is presumably a foreign risk — likely nothing they have to be worried about in their personal lives. And the two cops that led a team to track down the serial rapist were women, who've likely dealt with at least the fear of rape in their own lives. — Ryan Summerlin

Joanne Archambault: Unfortunately, female officers are often as tough, if not tougher on victims. There are a lot of reasons for it, but in my experience, having supervised both male and female investigators, gender has nothing to do with ability. My best investigators were good listeners and they had the ability to empathize with victims. Women are often more judgmental, distancing themselves from victims by telling themselves they wouldn't do whatever it was that the victim did to create the situation. We also find this with our juries.

I do believe more women should be in law enforcement, there would for example be less excessive force. We all know that diversity always improves any organization but it just doesn't translate to gender-based crimes. Of course women can be terrific but I don't think it's about gender.

T. Christian Miller: I also want to note that two other police departments in Colorado – Aurora and Lakewood – were involved in the capture of O'Leary. Those investigative effort were helmed by male officers, and they played a vital role in the effort.

What inspired you to tell these stories in a comprehensive feature today despite that local media had covered the cases already, and the story didn't have a particular news peg now? — Taylor Dolven

Ken Armstrong: Getting to interview Marie pushed the story into deeper territory. Then we were able to get the underlying documents in the story to reconstruct how the investigation went off the rails. Then the people in Marie's life who had also doubted her agreed to speak with us. I give them such tremendous credit for that. Just imagine how painful that is - to know you had been wrong on something so devastating, and then being asked to go back and figure out where you went astray. But the two foster mothers, Peggy and Shannon, agreed to do this for the best reason imaginable: They knew their mistakes could be learned from, and they knew that if their stories were shared, that would make it less likely for there to be another Marie (that is, someone who isn't believed, and who should be).

Archambault: I think it's important to remember that the problem wasn't just law enforcement. Two of the people in Marie's life who were the most important adult figures for her didn't believe her and her friend published a website where she identified Marie and slammed her. That's the point of the Start by Believing campaign. The failure to believe or understand victims is not just about law enforcement. Our entire society needs work understanding the realistic dynamics of sexual assault and how to support victims. The best thing you can do for any sexual assault victim is to not judge them, tell them you believe them and ask how you can help.

How do you approach interviewing someone like O'Leary? What is it like emotionally? What kind of preparation do you do? — Janet Lafler

Adding to this: did O'Leary express any remorse during the interview? — Amanda Zamora

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Miller: Yes, he was sorry for what he had done. He was, in fact, very open about the attacks. He denied raping any other women than the six victims in his trial. But he did mention that there had been previous attempts. He did not want to talk about them.

We talked with him at the Sterling Correctional Facility in Colorado. We had read statements that he gave to the police, and made in court. And then we had read through a lot of his ramblings in his notebooks that were part of the public record.

He's apologized to the victims. He takes full responsibility for his actions. He believes that there is a need for pre-emptive measures to stop prevent rape - such as counseling for young men who may have deviant fantasies.

One of the biggest ironies is that Officer Mason et al received very little punishment for what in effect was egregious and enduring harm to Marie. Yet these same actors galvanized to punish her for false reporting, a victimless crime. This dynamic plays out in other parts of our justice system and is the most disturbing part of this story to me. What do the reporters think about this aspect? And is it a coincidence that Marie was so vulnerable to this kind of injustice due to past trauma or her social class? – Powp

Armstrong: I would be most disturbed if I had the impression that the Lynnwood PD and Sgt. Mason had adopted a bunker mentality in response to this case and to our reporting on it. But the department ordered two reviews of the case - one internal, one external - and accepted the very tough language that came back in those reviews. Then the department incorporated reforms. Plus, Sgt. Mason and others in the police department talked to us about where they went wrong in this case - accepting blame and expressing not only deep remorse, but a real desire to make sure this never happens again.

Archambault: I want to also say that I have worked with many stories and agencies who made tragic mistakes and NEVER accepted any responsibility. I was pleased that the Lynwood Chief requested and investigation and that Sgt. Mason personally met with the victim and apologized. Although what happened was tragic, most Departments have failed to accept responsibility, implement reforms or apologize in any way.

This was fantastic work all around. I want to give special recognition to the analysts in this story, who are mentioned but not named. Please know that crime analysts behind the scenes are often passionately invested in these types of cases, and they can make crucial connections that might otherwise go overlooked. This series is a great example of that. — SGwinn

Miller: You are completely right. Some of the biggest breaks in this case were by analysts and criminologists (who, fwiw, were also mostly women). One great anecdote was the young analyst who stood up and delivered the news that connected Marc O'Leary to the case.

Archambault: I agree. This story clearly demonstrates that regardless of what for example people believe will be accomplished by testing all kits for DNA, the only way an investigation is going to be resolved successfully is through good old fashioned police work. Reviewing hours of surveillance videos, communicating with other law enforcement agencies and utilizing the professionals who work in Crime Analysis are just a few of the efforts the many law enforcement professionals involved in this case engaged in.