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Impact on Law Enforcement and Prosecution

Law Enforcement

SANE programs "have taken response to sexual assault victims at the emergency department out of the dark ages," according to Mark Purcell, a detective with the Sex Crimes Unit of the Alexandria, Virginia, Police Department.34 Purcell noted that SANEs present victims with a positive first impression of the community response system, increasing the likelihood that they will cooperate with law enforcement and prosecution. Officers know that victims are in good hands with SANEs because victims will be treated with kindness and respect. Officers also recognize the increased efficiency that SANEs bring to the evidentiary exam process, and as a result, the time they spend waiting for evidence and waiting to interview victims can often be greatly reduced.

Detectives realize that SANEs can contribute to investigations by providing meticulously collected forensic evidence and extensive documentation that complement crime scene evidence and witness statements. SANEs have greatly improved the quality and consistency of collected evidence, according to Pat Calhoun, a sergeant with the Sex Crimes Unit, Tulsa, Oklahoma, Police Department.35 Pat Groot, with the National Alliance of Sexual Assault Coalitions, noted that because of their forensic expertise and access to equipment such as the colposcope and medscope, SANEs may obtain evidence in cases involving acquaintance rapes and child sexual abuse that might have gone undetected with less experienced examiners.36 Calhoun remarked that he finds it useful to compare the police report with the nurse's report—sometimes SANEs obtain new or different information. Since the Tulsa, Oklahoma, SANE program office is located at the police department, Calhoun said he counts on the SANE coordinator to answer questions he and other detectives may have about the exam and collected evidence. Ultimately, the work of SANEs increases the chance that law enforcement will be able to move a case forward to prosecution.


SANEs' thorough evidence collection, particularly evidence corroborating lack of consent, and SANE testimony have been critical in helping prosecutors obtain increased numbers of guilty pleas from defendants.37 Recognizing the positive impact SANEs can have on outcomes in sexual assault cases, many local and state prosecution offices are supporting the implementation of SANE programs. In both New Jersey and Texas, for example, statewide efforts to develop SANE programs and SARTs are being led by the states' offices of the attorney general. Endorsement at this level encourages local prosecution offices and law enforcement agencies to support these initiatives.

Prosecutors have found SANEs to be credible witnesses in court as a result of their extensive experience and expertise in conducting evidentiary exams. The Director of a Wisconsin SANE program reported that during a 3 1/2-year period, they had a 100-percent conviction rate in cases where a SANE testified at trial.38 Patricia A. Smith, Coordinator of the SART/SANE program in Palmer, Alaska, noted that SANEs also save money at prosecution because the strength of photographic evidence taken by SANEs promotes more plea bargains, thus saving the state the cost of a trial.39

Sandra Sylvester, an assistant commonwealth attorney for Prince William County, Virginia, praised SANE programs in particular for their contributions to child sexual abuse cases. All pediatric SANE exams done in the county are referred to nearby Inova Fairfax Hospital. She said that with SANEs conducting pediatric evidentiary exams, children are less traumatized, evidence gathered has helped increase the number of pleas, and children often do not have to testify. Because the evidence SANEs collect can make a dramatic difference in whether a case gets prosecuted, Sylvester also would like to use forensic nursing in cases involving battered children.40

Case Law41

With the growth of SANE programs throughout the country, court systems are processing greater numbers of cases of sexual assault in which the victim has undergone a forensic exam. As more of these cases go to trial and result in increased numbers of convictions, state and federal appellate courts are reviewing constitutional and evidentiary challenges by defendants. To date, these courts have rejected all defense challenges to convictions based on SANE testimony.

These appellate reviews include evaluating the qualifications of a SANE as an expert witness and analyzing the nature and scope of SANE forensic testimony (both fact and expert testimony). These cases may establish precedent on the weight and admissibility of forensic evidence collected and testimony given by SANEs in particular jurisdictions throughout the country. In turn, these cases can help guide nurse examiners, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and courts.

For example, Gonzalez v. State of Texas, 1991 WL 67061 (Tex. App. Hous. (14 Dist.)), renders an analysis that a court may apply to qualify a SANE as an expert witness. Gonzalez was found guilty of sexual assault in a jury trial and sentenced to 50 years enhanced punishment. He asserted that he was deprived of effective assistance of counsel because his attorney failed to object to the qualifications of the SANE as an expert witness. Gonzalez asserted that the state failed to establish the SANE's qualifications as an expert witness as a predicate to her opinion testimony, and the failure of his counsel to object deprived him of his right to counsel. The Texas Court of Appeals, however, affirmed the conviction, recognizing the expert qualifications of the SANE, and ruled that the trial court properly admitted the opinion testimony.42

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Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Programs: Improving the Community Response to Sexual Assault Victims
April 2001
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