Surviving the system: MSUM grad faced added ordeals after reporting rape
Editor's note: This is the first installment in a two-part series. Read the second part here.
MOORHEAD — Laura Baker had just graduated from Minnesota State University Moorhead and was bound for Europe — a reward the 24-year-old planned and paid for herself after becoming the first in her family to earn a college degree.
But between graduation and vacation was a small party with co-workers on June 2, 2016. She had been drinking that night, so a co-worker offered to drive her. On that ride home she said she was raped.
Baker, of Grand Rapids, Minn., believes she did what she could to hold her co-worker accountable for his alleged actions. Actions that a prosecutor assigned to her case said can't be proven in court. Actions that victims' rights activists say aren't perceived or treated like other violent crimes.
Baker's case is indicative of challenges sexual violence survivors face in fighting for justice.
"They are the victim, and I think a lot of times we don't look at it that way," said Melanie Fierstine, prevention education director at Fargo's Rape and Abuse Crisis Center. "The No.1 thing is to believe them, to listen, to let them know it's not their fault."
When Baker went to an emergency room to have medical staff gather forensic evidence for what's known as a rape kit, no one was available to do so and she was asked to return the next morning. That meant another night sleeping with the evidence on her body.
After filing a police report, she left for Europe not knowing what would become of her case. She returned to the news that the prosecutor had declined to file charges.
As a last resort, she turned to MSUM, where her co-worker was enrolled. The university formally recommended expulsion twice, but that never happened.
Hoping to effect change, she decided to share her story. In September she did this as she stood behind a podium on MSUM's campus for its annual Take Back the Night event aimed at ending sexual violence and supporting survivors.
"We need more people to come forward or this will never change," Baker said.
The Forum doesn't typically name victims of rape, but Baker said she wanted to be identified to help destigmatize sexual violence and encourage others to report it.
"The secrecy and shame and the trauma a person experiences is what keeps them from reporting," Fierstine said. "The courage it takes for somebody to share their story is astounding."
Recently there's been a breakthrough in the dialogue surrounding sexual violence.
The hashtag #MeToo now repeated millions of times online has become an international rallying cry showing how widespread sexual violence is. It echos a movement created a decade ago by activist Tarana Burke.
Following this month's disclosure of allegations of harassment and abuse by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, Baker said she's "speechless" seeing so many survivors break the silence.
The burden of proof
On the night of June 2, 2016, Baker brought a bottle of wine to the get-together with co-workers.
She acknowledged drinking five to six glasses before taking her co-worker up on his offer to bring her home.
After a few blocks, he stopped the car and asked to kiss her. She consented.
The car continued down the road, but moments later, it was in park.
"That night I had no idea that my safety was in jeopardy, and I was naive of sexual assault until it happened to me," Baker said. "He took advantage of me. I was intoxicated and vulnerable."
Interviews with the Fargo Police Department revealed conflicting narratives, but Baker insists she was raped in the passenger seat. He told police it was consensual.
"There's a whole lot of onus put on the victim," Fierstine said. "The burden of proof is put on the victim. We seriously need to take a look at this, not only community-wide but our society as a whole."
Baker said she told her co-worker "no" repeatedly and explained that she doesn't sleep around. She said she had only slept with one other person in her life.
Prosecutor Leah Viste, who decided not to file charges in the case, said it's a matter of he-said-she-said and there needs to be proof of force beyond a reasonable doubt.
Because Baker acknowledged having a "crush" on her co-worker and performing oral sex that night in the car, it would be hard to prove intercourse wasn't consensual, Viste said.
"I thought that if I gave him oral sex I could get him to stop," Baker told police.
Viste said she understands that in the victim's mind oral sex could be considered a "compromise," however that wasn't made clear to her co-worker.
When reached by phone, Baker's now former co-worker declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Cass County Attorney's Office didn't pursue charges in Baker's case due to a lack of evidence, as Viste said: "There's no real indication that she fought back."
However, in Viste's letter declining charges, she wrote that Baker "had injuries that were consistent with her allegations."
Fierstine said when someone is in a fearful situation, fight-or-flight responses kick in, but often we forget about the other reflex: freeze. Every brain reacts differently to trauma, she said, and almost half of all rape survivors experience a state of paralysis during the assault.
"The law doesn't necessarily address some of the things that happen psychologically," Viste said.
Viste pointed to a 2007 case that she prosecuted. In that case, known as State vs. Vantreece, the North Dakota Supreme Court overturned a conviction of gross sexual imposition against a Fargo man. The 3-2 ruling stated there wasn't enough evidence to prove that the man had raped a vulnerable adult who didn't fight back and pretended to sleep — a defense mechanism from years of sexual abuse by her stepfather.
In discussing the cases of Baker and Vantreece as well as sexual assault laws in general, Viste acknowledged gaps in existing laws that sometimes make justice difficult to come by.
"Do I think there's bad behavior the law doesn't make criminal? Yes," Viste said.
Trauma in the ER
Baker was in a state of panic after her co-worker dropped her off at her apartment.
She told her roommate what happened and a friend took her to get an emergency contraceptive.
The next morning she went to Sanford's emergency room, but she wasn't ready to complete a rape kit. "I was still in disbelief," she said.
When she mustered the strength to go back the next day, a sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) was not available.
Baker was asked to return the next morning for her third visit to the ER.
"It was a heavy burden," she said. "I remember feeling disgusting."
She could barely sleep, but once the kit was collected in a nearly three-hour-long, invasive exam, she could finally shower.
"It was a temporary relief," she said.
With each ER visit, a crisis center advocate was by her side.
Baker was one of 3,145 people the center saw in 2016. She accounts for one of more than 1,100 sexual assault cases and three of more than 100 emergency room visits the center's advocates responded to last year.
In light of Baker's case, Sanford made changes so no victim would have to wait to complete a rape kit.
Jane Taber, who oversees Sanford's emergency department, said staff are now educated to find a SANE and have the patient stay until one is available. The last option is to have a physician perform a kit accompanied by an ER nurse.
"Additional standards have been implemented to ensure a patient can receive a sexual assault kit whether a SANE is available or not," Taber said in a statement.
Having created some positive change out of a horrible situation was a silver lining for Baker. "There's power in speaking up," she said.
But she still wanted to hold her co-worker accountable.
When MSUM administrators notified her in two separate letters that her co-worker would be expelled, she was OK with that.
"That gave me peace," she said.
But her co-worker appealed his expulsion, and for Baker, a fresh wound was opened.