CORNELIUS, N.C. — Editor’s Note: This story references a sexual assault. Reader discretion is advised.
A rape survivor says the criminal justice system is failing her. WCNC Charlotte first reported Witlee Ethan’s story in January when she pleaded with Cornelius town leaders to help address North Carolina’s sexual assault kit backlog.
Ethan said the delay in getting her results back was delaying her ability to get justice. Since then, Ethan has gotten her kit results back and male DNA was found.
However, investigators told Ethan that they are not pursuing the case.
Ethan thought that once male DNA was discovered from her sexual assault kit, police would bring in her suspected attacker for questioning. However, Cornelius Police Chief David Baucom told her in an email it was not enough evidence for probable cause.
“What’s the point of testing if you’re not going to carry through with it and get justice for the victims,” Ethan asked in an interview with WCNC Charlotte’s Julia Kauffman.
Going to the hospital for a sexual assault kit can be daunting for people who survive a sexual assault, but legal experts say it’s imperative for criminal cases.
“Even if you don’t want to necessarily end up pressing charges, do the things, if you can, that will help assist the police and the prosecutor prove the case,” Attorney Gary Mauney advised. However, he added that finding male DNA doesn’t prove the physical contact was forced and it takes more than just DNA to pursue criminal charges.
“There may be objective evidence that a sexual act occurred and of course, that might help,” Mauney said. “That’s a reason for the rape kit, but the sooner you report this to law enforcement, the better your chances are.”
Ethan had a kit done after she said she was raped by a man she met on a dating app in January 2020. She then waited to file a police report until November 2021.
She has pleaded with Cornelius PD to pursue her case, but Baucom said in a recent email he doesn’t have enough evidence. He also said the case is now inactive because of, “the length of time from the time of the incident to the time of reporting.”
“What they’re basically saying is you, Witlee Ethan, you don’t matter,” said Ethan. “It doesn’t matter what happened to you.”
Ilse Knecht with the Joyful Heart Foundation said a delay in reporting shouldn’t mean a case isn’t taken seriously. “Many survivors don’t feel ready right away,” said Knecht. “They’ve been through one of the most difficult and terrible situations that they’ll probably ever go through in their entire life.”
Ethan also called the department’s decisions unjust because of North Carolina’s statute of limitations. However, Mauney explained to WCNC Charlotte the statute of limitations doesn’t mean police have to pursue a case.
“It’s completely understandable that there might be a time lag and lack of perfection in terms of how everything happens, of course, look at the circumstances,” said Mauney. “But the police and the prosecutor are looking at this and asking, ‘Can we prove this?'”
Baucom also said they couldn’t find probable cause because there were discrepancies in the hospital nurse’s reporting from the night Ethan got a sexual assault kit and the report she filed with police. Ethan alleges the nurse wrote her account down incorrectly. She is now advocating with state lawmakers to pass laws that create higher standards for hospitals and police departments when dealing with sexual assault cases.
Although the male DNA found may not be enough for Ethan’s case right now, Knecht said it could help her and others in the future. “Sometimes putting the DNA that is found from the assault into DNA databases can also connect crimes together, so sometimes it might not be as helpful in one case but it can connect cases together.”
WCNC Charlotte reached out to Cornelius Police for further comment. A spokesperson said Ethan’s case is inactive pending further information and they cannot release any additional comment.