American Journal of Criminal Justice

, Volume 20, Issue 2, pp 183–205

The genuine victim and prosecutors’ charging decisions in sexual assault cases

  • Jeffrey W. Spears
  • Cassia C. Spohn


This study examined the effect of victim characteristics and evidence factors on prosecutors’ decisions to file charges in sexual assault cases. Social scientists and legal scholars argue that sexual assault case processing decisions are affected by stereotypes of real rapes and genuine victims. They assert that complainants whose backgrounds and behavior conform to the image of a genuine victim will be taken more seriously, and their allegations treated more seriously, than complainants whose backgrounds and behavior are at odds with this image. We used a sample of arrests for sexual assault made by the Detroit Police Department in 1989 to test these assertions. We combined six victim characteristics to create a genuine victim scale, and we examined the effect of this scale, as well as a number of evidence factors, on prosecutors’ charging decisions. We performed separate analyses on cases with child victims and cases with adolescent or adult victims. We found that the genuine victim scale did not influence charging decisions in cases with child victims, but was theonly significant predictor in cases involving adolescent or adult victims. In contrast, none of the four evidence factors affected charging in cases with adult victims, and only one of these factors was related to charging in cases involving children. These findings suggest that prosecutors attempt to avoid uncertainty by screening out sexual assault cases unlikely to result in a conviction because of questions about the victim’s character, the victim’s behavior, and the victim’s credibility.


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Case Cited

  1. Turner v. People, 33 Mich. 363 (1876).Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Southern Criminal Justice Association 1996

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jeffrey W. Spears
    • 1
  • Cassia C. Spohn
    • 1
  1. 1.University of Nebraska at OmahaUSA

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