Carolina Public Press received a tip that some district attorneys in North Carolina “never” prosecute sexual assault cases. Journalists at the nonprofit news outlet pulled more than four years of data from the state’s court system and assembled a team to analyze it.
What they found would lead to bipartisan reforms to the state’s sexual assault laws – reforms that will affect thousands of cases in the years ahead.
“The data files we received from the state were messy, complicated and huge. Once we sorted through all the data, we saw that fewer than one in four sexual assault defendants were convicted and that one-third of the counties in the state had no sexual assault convictions at all. Then we needed to drill down underneath the data and find the reasons,” said Angie Newsome, founder and executive director of Carolina Public Press.
Supported by funds from the Fund for Investigative Journalism and others, Carolina Public Press assembled a statewide team, with partners at several print, television and radio outlets. Early in the project, the team held “listening sessions” across in three North Carolina cities to hear directly from sexual assault survivors, policymakers, service providers, advocates, attorneys, and others. These sessions increased the reporters’ understanding of the issues facing survivors, law enforcement and prosecutors, and they also helped identify story sources. for the stories.
After more than six months of intensive work, the story ran across 11 media outlets in the state.
Within months, the North Carolina Legislature unanimously passed a package of reforms changes to the state’s sexual assaults– assault laws, including reforms that had failed to pass before the Carolina Public Press story was published. Two of the reforms changed aspects of consent laws that had made prosecution particularly difficult. One measure made it clear that a person can revoke consent during a sexual encounter, and another changed a law that said sexual assault wasn’t a crime if the person who was assaulted had been drinking or using drugs. North Carolina Governor Gov. Roy Cooper signed the reforms into law.