"I don't understand why we have a rape charge if we're not going to use it," said Sara.
The Northeast Ohio native met Shane Porter online last year.
He hooked her with his uniform.
“I was so trusting of him because he was a police officer,” she said.
After months of exchanging messages, she agreed to meet him at the Metroparks on a cool November night.
It was supposed to be a date.
Her excitement soon turned to disappointment. She said Porter’s behavior was weird.
“He kept on doing all these police maneuvers with moving my arms behind my back,” she said.
Then, she said, he turned violent.
“The whole time he was just holding my head down onto him, saying, ‘You don't get any breaks. You don't get to breathe until I’m finished’,” she said.
Sara said she was raped.
“I just wanted to drown. I didn't want to deal with it. I didn't want to be in my body,” she said.
She did want to press charges.
However, just before her trial was scheduled to start this winter, the once gung-ho prosecutor handling her case changed his tune.
Porter was offered a plea deal.
Instead of facing hard time, he could now only be sentenced to up to three years.
"I would ask them why they let my case go, why they sold it so short,” she said.
Many Cuyahoga County cases mimic Sara’s story.
We tracked every accused rapist in every case and found at least 531 struck plea deals leading to reduced charges.
We also found 261 accused rapists were sentenced to less than three years in prison, the minimum sentence for a first degree felony in Ohio.
Even more troubling, we found dozens of accused rapists did not spend a single day behind bars, including Clearance People and Samuel Pachelka, each accused of raping 5-year-old girls.
"It indicates that there's a serious problem with the system,” said Patricia Falk, a law professor at Cleveland State University and an expert in Ohio’s rape laws.
“A light sentence sends a bad message that we don't really care, that this behavior is not that bad,” she said.
“We have to deal with the practicalities of what's going to happen in the courtroom,” said Rick Bell, Assistant Prosecutor and Special Investigations Division Chief for the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office.
Bell said plea deals are a routine part of all criminal cases and help guarantee rapists are punished.
“If you go to trial on a case that's not as strong as other cases, you run the risk for the community that we represent of losing that case. And the last thing you want to do is to have a case where you do not secure a conviction,” she said.
Bell also blamed the judges, who ultimately decide rapists’ sentences, for the light sentences rapists often receive in Cuyahoga County.
“We advocate for the harshest sentence,” said Bell.
“We go forward on every case asking for the most time we can. We ask the court to sentence rapists and sexual offenders to prison. It’s up to the court to decide if they wish to do that,” he said.
The Toughest Cases
After our interview, Ryan Miday, Director of Communications & Public Policy, sent News 5 an e-mail that said, in part: “We pursue justice based upon the evidence." He also said Cuyahoga County prosecutors take on “the toughest cases.”
Miday also sent us the following statistics:
- The county’s average sentencing on rape cases—13.42—is higher than the national average of 11 years.
- According to BJS report we provided to you (see attached), the probability across the nation that a defendant would eventually be convicted of the original felony charge was highest for those charged with a driving-related offense (64%), murder (60%), or drug trafficking (55%). The lowest probability was for those charged with rape (35%) and assault (33%). Our office’s statistic for rape is consistent with the national average of 35 percent.
- Additionally, we provided statistics which show our office goes to trial on rape charges more than any other type of criminal case.
Why Sentences Should Be Harsh
The light sentences are even more troubling when you consider emerging research on the number of serial rapists.
“First of all, there are significantly more of them than we thought we would find,” said Dr. Daniel Flannery, the Director of the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education.
Working closely with Cuyahoga prosecutors, their researchers analyzed about 300 of the county’s sexual assault kits and found about half were serial offenders.
“We have a significant number of offenders, who if you look hard enough, and investigative thoroughly enough, are linked to many other cases,” said Flannery.
“We believe that rapists can rape again,” said Bell. “And because of that we're trying to expose those rapists and make sure they get the harshest sentence they can.”
Bell said his office aggressively pursues serial offenders. He also said sentences for rapists who do not get plea deals average 13 years, two years more than the national average.
“I wish I had a crystal ball”
Bell also said the average sentence for all rape Cuyahoga County cases is one year longer than the national average.
Those facts bring little comfort to Sara, especially after what happened during Porter’s sentencing.
First, Porter tearfully told the court he believed their encounter was consensual. Then, he apologized - not for hurting her, but for lying to detectives.
Remember how he said he was a police officer?
Then, Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Steven E. Gall made it clear he wasn’t sure he believed Sara’s story.
“I wish I had a crystal ball and we could figure out what really happened,” he told the court.
Gall then sentenced Porter to just 30 days.
"It really changed my perspective,” said Sara. “I can't tell anyone who comes up to me and says, you know, ‘Hey, I was raped what do you recommend that I do?’ I can't tell them to go through what I went through. I can't. I went through a year’s worth of trial prep, just to come down to 30 days,” she said.
After we shared Sara’s thoughts with prosecutors, Miday said, in an e-mail: “This is alarming.”
“We talked extensively about our concern that the story will leave the impression that the victim’s testimony is representative of our office’s work on sexual assault cases, especially given your account that the victim’s statement that pursuing charges is not worth it,” he said. “Our advocacy with victims and our work with victim advocates tells the opposite story.”