On Sunday, The Seattle Times published new evidence regarding the sexual-abuse allegations against Mayor Ed Murray: In June 1984, Oregon Child Protective Services (CPS) concluded that Jeff Simpson, one of Murray’s accusers and for two years his foster son, had indeed been sexually abused. “In the professional judgment of this caseworker who has interviewed numerous children of all ages and of all levels of emotional disturbance regarding sexual abuse, Jeff Simpson has been sexually abused by … Edward Murray,” the caseworker wrote in the 33-year-old document, previously thought to have been lost or destroyed.
In response, Murray doubled down on the two narratives that he has been offering the press and the public for the past four months: One, he is innocent. Two, his accusers are not credible. This week, he re-emphasized the latter point by arguing that criminal charges were never filed on Simpson’s behalf. In May 1984, the Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney dropped the case.
“Other than the salacious nature of it, I don’t see what the story is,” Murray told the Times. “The system vindicated me. They withdrew the case.” Then, in a statement sent to the press following the Times’ article, Murray added, “Those accusations were fully investigated at the time, and the District Attorney decided there was too much doubt to go forward.” Murray also pointed to the fact that the case was dropped before it could be placed before a grand jury, adding irreverently that this further vindicated him because “we all know people get indicted, and they get indicted pretty easily. As I said, one of the attorneys told me you can get a ham sandwich indicted in the grand jury.”
These statements perpetuate a pervasive myth about sexual assault and abuse: All credible accusations result in criminal charges. In fact, only a fraction of all rape reports are even sent to prosecutors’ offices, and when they are, only a fraction of those are followed by criminal charges. An even smaller fraction make it to trial, and just seven out of every 1,000 reported rapes result in felony convictions, according to federal justice statistics compiled by RAINN. Yet reports of sexual assault or abuse later confirmed to be false are vanishingly rare.
In an investigation published last December, Seattle Weekly’s Sara Bernard found that, in King County, it is also very common for sexual-assault cases to go nowhere. Charges may go unfiled for varying reasons: a lack of physical evidence or of witnesses; restrictions in state law or in prosecutors’ filing standards; and possibly, some survivors say, a persistent victim-blaming culture in the prosecutor’s office. According to numerous national studies on the subject, the ratio of all sexual-assault cases brought to law enforcement that result in prosecution lies somewhere between 14 and 18 percent.
Again, there are many reasons for this. The reason is not always, or automatically, that the abuse or assault never occurred. Indeed, as the Multnomah County DA wrote at the time, “It was Jeff’s emotional instability, history of manipulative behavior, and the fact that he has again run away and made himself unavailable that forced my decision… . However, this in no way means that the District Attorney’s Office has decided Jeff’s allegations are not true.”
We cannot be certain of what happened in Portland three decades ago. It’s true that the mayor is in a difficult spot: Defending himself inherently questions the credibility of his accusers. But that does not justify his doubling-down on a defense strategy he has previously apologized for pursuing—to cast doubt on all accusers who have not secured a conviction against the accused—now that evidence against him has mounted.
The CPS report is not the whole story, but it’s pretty damning. A few months ago, he also attacked the Times’ initial story, which focused on Delvonn Heckard, a different accuser, by saying, “Instead of seeking to verify—with evidence—the unsubstantiated accusation, it was enough only that the accusation was made.” Now he’s saying the evidence that has emerged isn’t reliable because the DA didn’t press charges. That’s a harmful defense to put forth from high office—and an inexcusably ignorant one.