In 2008, Marie—not her real first name—reported to Lynwood, Washington police that she had been raped in her home by an intruder. But police honed in on inconsistencies in her account, and soon became skeptical of her story. Under questioning, Marie eventually told authorities that she made the entire assault up. Years later, when detectives in a different state finally caught a serial rapist, they found in his possession photos of his victims—and images of Marie’s assault. By then, she had already accepted a plea deal after being charged for making a false police report.
The dramatic story, which is adapted from a joint ProPublica and Marshall Project investigation from 2015, is the basis for Netflix’s new series Unbelievable. It may sound like a singular nightmare, but Marie is not alone. There’s Danielle Hicks, in Washington, D.C., who was just eleven years old when she was gang raped. Her story of her assault was corroborated by rape kit evidence, but police decided that the encounter was consensual—despite the fact that, as a minor, Hicks could not have legally consented to sex with adults. She was charged with filing a false report, removed from her home, and spent more than two-years in District-run facilities.
Then there’s Sara Reedy, who was working at a gas station when a thief robbed the station at gunpoint and sexually assaulted her. Police believed that she’d stolen from her workplace and invented the assault to cover up her own theft, and she was arrested and jailed. Her rapist eventually admitted to the crime.
According to Louisiana State University law professor Lisa Avalos, who’s extensively researched such cases, incidents like these can stem from a cultural tendency towards disbelieving assault victims, widespread misunderstanding of how trauma affects survivors, and the challenging nature of rape investigations.
In Marie’s case, detectives zeroed in on minor discrepancies in her account, such as whether she untied herself after the rape before or after she called a friend for help. “Memory processes don’t work in the normal way when somebody is traumatized,” Avalos said. Some researchers believe that this might be an evolutionary adaptation—the brain focuses in on sources of threat, and ignores other details. In an armed robbery, said psychologist Richard McNally in an interview with NPR, “The person may often encode the features of the weapon, the gun pointed at him, but not recall whether or not the person was wearing glasses, because their attention is focused on the most central features of the experience.”
But to police uninitiated in this research, a changing story can seem like a red flag. “When investigators are not trained in trauma informed sexual assault investigation they start to become suspicious when there are inconsistencies in a victim’s story and those inconsistencies start a vicious cycle where the investigator thinks that the woman is lying and is not being honest with him,” Avalos said. “Then because he becomes suspicious he starts asking hostile questions and then the victim ends up ultimately shutting down and not sharing information because she’s being treated poorly.”
Many victims, weighing the very great likelihood that their attacker will go unpunished (under one percent of rapes end in felony convictions) and that themselves will be judged or disbelieved, wait for long periods before reporting their assaults—a delay that can itself make police suspicious.
And unlike murders, robberies, or violent non-sexual assault, the evidence of wrongdoing in rape cases can be less visible. “Some crimes are easier for the police to take seriously,” Avalos said. After a murder, “there’s a body. There’s somebody who’s dead. If there’s some kind of objective evidence like a car being carjacked or something, the police tend to be more sympathetic. The tricky thing about sexual assault is that it usually takes place in private and it often takes place between people who know each other.”
The effects of authorities not believing rape victims can be wide-ranging. Unbelievable traces the fallout Marie suffered—which included digital harassment and lost friends after reports that she’d made up an attack emerged. Unable to work, she quit her job. And of course, a rapist went free for years, and continued to brutalize women.
But there may also have been effects we’ll never know of. In her work, Avalos describes a the chilling effect that can result from prosecuting survivors for making false reports. Other assault victims can take note—and decide that reporting their rapes might not be worth the risk of prosecution.
But many jurisdictions are changing their investigative methods with hopes of minimizing the likelihood of cases like Marie’s occurring. After officers in one Utah police department were trained in trauma-informed approaches to rape investigation, the rate of prosecutions for sexual assault rose from just 6 percent to 22 percent.
At the root of much of the mishandling of rape cases is the fear that false reports may land innocent men in prison. But only about 5 percent of reported rapes are considered to be false, which means men are more likely to be the victims of a sexual assault than to be accused of committing one. Still, the police department that handled Marie’s case determined that more than 20 percent of its reported rapes between 2008 and 2012 were made falsely, a rate that is many times the national average. We may never know how many more Maries are out there.