A Cycle of Abuse Pt. 4: Following child sexual assault investigations into the courts

Published: Jan. 16, 2021 at 9:46 AM CST
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This story was originally published April 16, 2019, but is being republished after it did not properly transfer onto WSAW’s new web platform.

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - Despite reports of child sexual assault happening two to three times daily across north-central Wisconsin, charges are only being filed for that crime about twice a week across the same area. In Part 3 of our coverage, we described the process of investigation before a case makes it to court. Now, we will walk through how many of those cases end with a trial or a plea deal.

The Court System

Since 2015, 389 cases made it through an investigation and into the court system. Of those cases, 164 of the suspects were found guilty of at least one count of child sexual assault, and only 18 went to trial.

Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzstoen says, “our standard is ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’, which is a very high standard. So there are risks, going to trial. There are risks for the offender if the offender is found guilty, and there are risks for the state if an offender is found not guilty.”

That means the vast majority of child sexual assault cases end in a plea deal. Wetzstoen says her department takes a lot of factors into consideration when considering whether a case goes to trial, or is negotiated. “The case can evolve, making the case either stronger, or not as strong depending. That doesn’t mean it impacts the believability or credibility of the victim; it’s the provability.”

Wetzstoen says ultimately, they do what is best for the victim. “We do not want to sacrifice a child’s mental health to go forward with the trial if we can reach a resolution that meets the public safety, the interest of the victim, and ongoing rehabilitation of the offender.”

Often, that means they do not need to find the suspect guilty of all charges, to get the result they want. “The sexual assault charge carries with it a pretty high penalty,” she says. “Other than homicide, it’s really the highest penalty for child sexual assault.”

That means in a case with multiple charges, some of those charges may be dropped entirely, or dismissed but read into the court record. “The court can take into consideration the circumstances of that charge that’s dismissed and read in, which is why we use that a lot as prosecutors. It can aggravate sentencing at the time for the convicted offense.”

Wetzstoen says a plea deal ensures a conviction, and that the suspect will get the treatment and counseling they likely need. It also allows the state to track the suspect, and notify the public if they are a sex offender.

Of the 18 cases that did go to trial, only 3 of the suspects were found not guilty.

Wetzstoen says in any case, but especially in those cases, it is important to have compassion for the victim from beginning to end. “Even if it was a not guilty.” Wetzstoen says, “I’ve had interactions where they’ve said, ‘thank you, I can’t tell you how much you’ve helped us and helped the child’ because we stood up for them.”

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