'Constant anxiety': Sexual assault survivor describes effects of long delays in justice system
Winnipeg Coun. Russ Wyatt charged this week, more than 6 months after sex assault allegation
Close to six months.
That's how much time elapsed between the moment a woman contacted Winnipeg police in January and when investigators were able to formally charge city Coun. Russ Wyatt with sexual assault — a charge Wyatt has denied.
In the Wednesday news conference in which Winnipeg police announced the charge to media and the public, Const. Rob Carver explained that time was spent in complex investigations — detailed interviews conducted by expert investigators and especially the time-consuming lab analysis of forensic evidence that Winnipeg police can't do in-house.
"Unfortunately, this is not outside the norm for sexual assault investigations," Carver told reporters at the time.
"The delay in sexual assault charges is almost always based on getting lab results back .… In this case, I can tell you that that information was not provided to the Winnipeg Police Service until yesterday."
To Tanya Busch, it's a familiar conundrum. The 24-year-old Winnipeg woman says only about five minutes passed from the moment she was sexually assaulted in her apartment two years ago and when she contacted police to report it.
But she had to wait two painful months until police laid a charge against the man, who lived in the same building as Busch.
"You're really kept in the dark," Busch said.
"I think it's a misconception that after you report, you are going to feel like you're in control. But really, as soon as you've finished reporting and as soon as you've finished, that's the last time that you're ever going to be in charge of what's going on."
She described it as a sense of "constant anxiety."
"The first two weeks, I was scared to leave the house alone. I needed somebody with me at all times," she recalled.
"My friends would drive me to work or hold my hand and walk me to work, walk me down to the doors of my building."
Looking back on her experience in a quiet meeting room earlier this week, Busch says police had to take that time to get the pieces they needed to make sure her case could be proven in court. But the wait was nonetheless difficult.
"I thought, what if they don't believe me?" she said. "What if his story is better than mine?"
Busch said the police and Crown representative she worked with were kind and understanding, but as her case wound its way through investigations and the court, she felt herself just wanting the ordeal to be over. It took two years until the man involved took a plea deal and was deported.
"To me, it's really understandable that some people would quit," she said. "The fear that you're going to be forgotten about, or that they're not really understanding what you're going through, is really prevalent."
Busch didn't drop her case, and she said she hopes her story helps other victims find the strength to come forward.
"I didn't, I think, because I wanted to prove a point. Maybe that's because I'm stubborn or hard-headed, but I didn't want somebody to think it was just OK to do that to me, or to anybody," she said.
"I really just didn't want to become another statistic."
'Need to be resolved'
According to sex assault and legal experts, delays like those Carver and Busch described aren't unique as victims of sexual assault move through the legal system, from police interactions to court dates.
"There's so many parts to it [and] I'm sure they are doing their best," said Zilla Jones, a Winnipeg defence lawyer who said recent sex assault cases she's worked on have moved slowly, too.
"But we just all need to keep in mind that these cases are stressful for people and they need to be resolved as quickly as they can."
During Wednesday's press conference, Carver said police can't lay charges until they have reasonable and probable grounds to believe the offence occurred.
In sex crime investigations, investigators have to conduct very careful interviews with the person making the complaint and then move on to interviewing witnesses and suspects, he said.
Winnipeg police also have to send lab evidence to be tested by the RCMP, which takes time too, he said. In the Wyatt case, he said investigators couldn't move forward until the results were returned.
Once charges are laid, Jones said lawyers also try to access phone records or social media histories of people involved — often essential in a sexual assault case, where there may be a lack of other evidence.
That means going through outside organizations like phone companies or Facebook, and that can add time, too.
"I've had cases where it's taken almost a year to get videos off Facebook that people have deleted," she said.
The cases move through court differently as well, she added. They can be more adversarial, for instance, and unlike in many other types of cases, sexual assault victims may not be required to testify during preliminary inquiries.
Lawyers may argue about whether it's necessary for the victim to speak in the preliminary, and that can slow things down, she said.
"It's a very unwieldy process that often drags things out at that stage," she said.
'You want to see resolution'
Nicole Chammartin, executive director of Winnipeg's Klinic Community Health centre, which offers support for sexual assault victims, said counsellors always warn victims that the process will take time.
"It's just another piece. If you imagine any of us that has gone through a trauma and has decided to do something, you want to see resolution," she said.
"It drags out the entire experience for them. It drags out the amount of time that they're engaged in this. It may make it harder for them to move forward and get closure."
Busch says she was given that advice by her Klinic counsellor when she first visited the centre to talk about her assault. The truth, she said, is that it's impossible to mentally prepare yourself for the process.
"Before I was actually in this situation, the hopes that the justice system will take care of it are a lot higher," she said.
"But the reality is, it could take years and years and years."
For other victims, she advises relying on a support network of friends or family. In the absence of that, go see Klinic, she said. And she offers a last piece of advice.
With files from Ian Froese and Bartley Kives