King County prosecutors see increase in sexual assaults

It was a horrifying brazen attack that began at a West Seattle bus stop early Monday morning, when a man began sexually assaulting a victim who was a complete stranger.

Court documents show the victim managed to get away numerous times, but each time the rapist would catch up to him, continuing the assault before eventually raping him. It is the 20th sexual assault case filed within just the last month in King County.

"It’s not one certain type, we've seen stranger cases like the one we filed yesterday or cases involving family members, which are disturbing," says Casey McNerthney, director of communications for the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

Looking at cases filed just within the last week, there was yet another stranger rape, where the suspect targeted a woman at an off-campus sorority home. Two cases involved children, and one was a domestic violence attack.

"It would be easier to address if we saw one spike in one area," says McNerthney.

There is no clear pattern. The only thing King County prosecutors can say is they’re filing more rape cases than before because they’re getting more cases submitted to them from law enforcement.

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In 2020 there was a total of 187 rape cases filed; that’s 70 more cases than 2019.

Sue Marks with the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault programs says when COVID-19 first hit, many wondered how it might affect sexual assault. Some of the things she’s seen differ a bit from King County’s data.

"Forensic exam numbers were greatly decreased," Marks says. 

Marks says the number of rape kits done at state hospitals went down quite a bit. But she and other advocates don’t think that’s because rapes stopped happening, rather they heard from survivors who explained not wanting to go to the hospital during COVID for multiple reasons.

"Normally in many many hospitals if a survivor goes for a forensic exam an advocate is automatically called to accompany them and that has changed," says Marks.

Now, at many hospitals survivors have to undergo the hours long, emotionally grueling exam alone. And then Marks says there’s the COVID shaming that can add to the shame survivors already experience when reporting sexual assault.

"If you are meeting people or you’re dating people during COVID, it's another layer where people can say, well what were you doing any way with someone," says Marks.

So while King County numbers are up, the reporting of sexual assaults is likely down.

In Pierce County, prosecutors filed 46 fewer rape cases in 2020 than in 2019. In Snohomish, the numbers for the unit handling sexual assaults was also lower in 2020.

So while the data in some way brings up more questions than answers, advocates say rape continues to be an epidemic throughout the state that deserves all of our attention.

While there is no clear reason why rape charges are up in King County, prosecutors note numbers for many of their violent crimes have also spiked, including homicide, animal cruelty, and domestic violence.