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Defendants' rights in sexual assault cases

A person charged with college student crimes, including sexual assault and date rape, has constitutional rights. Pennsylvania courts must protect these rights to due process.

Criminal trials are not intended to determine whether defendants are good or bad or whether they should be punished. The prosecution, identified as the Commonwealth, must prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt. In other words, prosecutors must prove that the accused did certain acts at a specific time and place.

The alleged victim, the complainant, serves only as a witness in criminal trials, if he or she chooses to testify. A judge is required to believe the complainant only at the preliminary hearing. This hearing is held before the trial where the Commonwealth must present sufficient proof that it can proceed with its prosecution.

Television shows portray inaccurate representation of sex crimes and trials. This sometimes leads to jurors having false beliefs, such as the importance of physical evidence, when determining the outcome of a trial. Physical evidence such as rape kits, for example, only prove that sexual intercourse took place. However, the important proof of guilt is determining whether there was consent.

Consent depends on the totality of the circumstances. These include the relationship between the accused and the alleged victim, the setting, whether there are wounds, or if a weapon was used.

There is also a difference between assent and consent. Assent is when an individual expresses approval. This is different from consent because an assenting person may not provide legal consent to take part in a sexual act because of mental impairment, age, or force.

Exuberant consent is a helpful benchmark for determining whether a crime has occurred. This type of consent means that a person is not just saying no or physically resisting even though they are uncomfortable. The person is enthusiastically wanting to engage in a physical act with another person.

A defense attorney can help assure that a defendant's rights are respected. A lawyer can challenge evidence and engage in a plea negotiation, when appropriate. Also, depending on the circumstances, a criminal defense attorney may be able to raise reasonable doubt as to an individual's guilt, thereby obtaining an acquittal. This can allow an accused individuals to protect his or her reputation and return to his or her normal life as quickly as possible.

Source: The Pitt News, "Lawyers navigate the intricacies of assault," By Hannah Schneider, Feb. 14, 2018

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