Law on campus sex assaults misunderstood, lawmaker says
After a woman snorted Xanax and tumbled to her death from a college dorm, her family questioned whether campus police officers had the expertise to find out what went wrong.
Jessica Horton Act
This is how the law is worded:
“1. The chief of the campus police of an institution of higher learning, or his designee, immediately shall notify the State Law Enforcement Division if there is a death resulting from an incident occurring on the property of the institution or if the officer or another official of the institution is in receipt of a report alleging that an act of criminal sexual conduct has occurred on the property of the institution.
“2. Upon notification, the State Law Enforcement Division shall participate in a joint investigation of the death or alleged act of criminal sexual conduct. In the case of a death, the State Law Enforcement Division shall lead the investigation. In the case of an alleged act of criminal sexual conduct, the campus police shall lead the investigation.
“3. The campus police and other employees of the institution of higher learning shall cooperate with an investigation conducted by the State Law Enforcement Division.”
Those questions prompted state lawmakers to pass legislation allowing an outside police agency to get involved with investigations into campus deaths and sex assaults.
But the College of Charleston has interpreted the law differently in recent investigations, including one in which a woman accused four baseball players of sexually assaulting her.
The college cited the law as its reason for keeping the case solely in the hands of campus police, who have limited experience in sex assaults compared with the city detectives who handled such investigations before the bill was passed.
But Sen. Vincent Sheheen, D-Camden, said he drafted the Jessica Horton Act in 2007 to provide for a “more experienced and professional review” of such cases.
“It puts these cases into the hands of law enforcement officers who deal with these things on a more frequent basis,” Sheheen said. “They shouldn’t have to change procedures and no longer have the city involved.”
The Post and Courier on Sunday first reported the April 23 case in which a family member challenged the school and its police force as possibly biased in the investigation because it involved athletes.
On Monday, two lawmakers vowed to take a look at the law that the College of Charleston said required it to lead the investigation from the moment a softball player said she was asssaulted during a dorm party.
A college spokeswoman could not immediately discuss the school’s take on the law.
The college has maintained that trained officers from its Department of Public Safety properly investigated the allegation. The six-month probe ended this month without arrests because of what the school called “insufficient evidence.”
One of the four suspects was expelled for conduct violations, officials said, but three others remain on campus.
The Jessica Horton Act states school police agencies “shall lead” investigations into sex assaults. They are required to notify the State Law Enforcement Division, whose agents then participate in a “joint investigation.”
The College of Charleston told SLED about the allegation and asked state lab experts to test some of the evidence.
But the victim’s father argued that notification and lab testing, which is done routinely for police agencies statewide, did not satisfy the law that requires the agencies’ cooperation throughout the investigation.
He also has questioned whether campus police officers have sufficient experience to investigate sex crimes. Two officers who handled the case have a combined 35 hours of special training, less than what a typical investigator with the city police has completed.
He said he asked for an independent agency to be assigned to the case, but was turned down.
“I understand that this law is giving resources to organizations that don’t have resources,” the father said. “But (the campus police) didn’t get outside people involved. That’s why certain evidence wasn’t collected, and they never interviewed the suspects.”
SLED spokesman Thom Berry said the extent of state agents’ investigation is typically left up to the school. The SLED lab tested vomit from the victim and other evidence, Berry said.
The father said police have not discussed the results of any testing.
Berry referred questions about the agency’s role under the Jessica Horton Act to the State Attorney General’s Office. Mark Powell, a spokesman for the attorney general, said he could not comment on the law because the office had not yet issued a legal opinion of it.
“It’s a College of Charleston case,” Berry said. “They did give us a courtesy notification.”
Jessica Horton was an 18-year-old student at the University of South Carolina in 2002. She had snorted crushed Xanax pills before climbing through her window one night and sleeping on the ledge outside her sixth-floor dorm room, according to news reports.
She later fell to her death.
Sheheen said he introduced the bill because Horton’s family, who lives in his district, questioned the university’s ability to conduct a thorough police investigation.
Campus police departments “are able to request another agency if they’re not capable or have a conflict,” Sheheen said.
The law doesn’t state that campus police must conduct the investigation at all costs, he said.
Clarifying that might require further legislation in the next session, said Sen. Robert Ford, a Democrat from Charleston who co-sponsored the bill with Sheheen.
Ford discounted the father’s viewpoint that campus police officers could have a conflict of interest because the case involves athletes. He doubted that such “hanky-panky by a police department could be happening in 2012.”
“But this is something we will look into,” Ford said. “If we need to straighten out the law, that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.