An interview with Debbie Shaw, a victim turned advocate who was sexually assaulted in her Dallas-area home in 1986.
For those who don't know your story, what were the key details of your case?
Debbie: On June 30, 1986, my house was broken into at approximately 4:30 a.m., and before the sun came up, I was raped and robbed. The rapist threatened to kill me if I didn't stop screaming. I didn't see his face, so I couldn't identify him. It was only a few minutes, but it seemed like forever. After he left, I called my sister, and she called the police. They came and took me to the hospital for a medical exam, and they took fingerprints at my home and started an investigation.
I soon went back to work, but I couldn't function very well, and my manager had to help me with my work. My emotions were out of control. I tried counseling, but that didn't help. I became suicidal and ended up in a psychiatric hospital for a while. Nothing was helping, but before I left the hospital, I started praying, and that began a healing process that brought me out of the crisis and helped me to go on with my life. By June 1987, I had met all my recovery goals, and I was able to express my appreciation for everyone who had helped me get to that point. I also moved to a safer location that was about five minutes from my sister.
Were the police able to solve your case?
Debbie: Not immediately after the rape-and I found out many years later that they had suspended the case after only 10 days and hadn't done an extensive investigation. Lack of evidence was the reason listed on the police report. The latent fingerprints were never used, and prints were never taken to eliminate people who had visited me. Many years after the assault, after 9/11, I started doing volunteer work with crime victims at Youth and Family Services in Cedar Hill, Texas. My supervisor, Jana Rogers, gave me the opportunity to attend the victim assistance academy at Sam Houston State College, where I learned about crimes being solved years later through DNA. When I returned home, I went to the Dallas police and spoke with Detective Rathjen and asked if my case could be reopened, and it was. Sergeant Patrick Welsh found the biological evidence and submitted the DNA sample to be entered into CODIS. It took about a year and a half for the evidence to be processed, but in 2005, they got a cold hit and identified the rapist as Johnny Ray Patton, who was then in prison for burglary of a habitation and assault.
You were advocating for the case to be reopened, but were there any surprises in how you felt when the case actually was reopened and the perpetrator was identified?
Debbie: Yes. When they first found out the rapist's identity, I was so relieved. Now we knew who did it, and he was in prison. But then the police explained that the statute of limitations had run out, so they couldn't prosecute him for the assault on me. All I could do was write letters so they would keep him in prison. That was a hard thing to take. And then people-like my sister-kept telling me to just let it go. I was really lonely dealing with these feelings. But the victims' advocate for the Dallas Police Department, Pat Keaton, decided to start a cold case support group because these cases that were being reopened were bringing back all kinds of emotions in the victims. It was so helpful for us because we could talk about our feelings and the things people would say to us.
We also started talking about the statute of limitations and what could be done about it. We thought that-at the very least-if there is a DNA match for someone with a criminal record, that DNA match should be part of the record. So we met with the district attorney and asked for his help. He agreed with us, and he urged some state legislators to propose such a law, which was passed late last year. As of September 2009, the DNA of suspects in unsolved sexual assault cases can be attached to their criminal records, even if they can't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has passed. If offenders are arrested again, law enforcement would have access to the information about the DNA match. Also, judges have access to these records and can impose a longer sentence in addition to what the jury recommends.
Did Texas ever repeal the statute of limitations on sexual assault?
Debbie: There is still a statute of limitations for sexual assault. But in 1996, the legislature made an exception when there is DNA evidence that does not match the victim or any known person. In such cases, there is no statute of limitations.
Were there any other important developments in your case?
Debbie: The man who raped me was denied parole in 2007, so he is still in prison. After I spoke with the lead voter of the parole board, he has been denied parole again this year.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the law enforcement response to the crime against you?
Debbie: The police department was great. Back in 1986, victim services was in its infancy, so police officers didn't have a lot of experience handling rape victims. But they talked to me and my family, and they were kind and compassionate. And they listened carefully. When the case was reopened, the police detectives got right on it. Sergeant Welsh found the rape kit and insisted that everything be processed, and he was patient with my calls and questions. The medical examiner was great, too-he was nice and responded quickly. He found the evidence and wanted to have my case solved.
What advice would you have for other advocates who would like to help other victims?
Debbie: Be passionate about what you are doing. Letting victims know you are there for them to listen, help, and give advice. The hours are sometimes long, but it's really worth it. I learned so much. I started doing public speaking and went to speak to the police academy about how victims feel. I've told my story to prisoners, too, for a program called Bridges to Life, to explain what victims go through. Each year in February, for the past four years, I have spoken to a new group of students in the victimology class at the University of North Texas. These students are the future police officers, social workers, and advocates. I love giving them my insights about the things that will help them be better prepared to deal with a victim. In March, I spoke to a group of parolees, impressing upon them the extent of trauma felt by the victim and the impact felt by family and friends. My hope is that they will learn from hearing my story so they won't victimize again.
You never know the impact you will have on people. Recently our cold case group was interviewed by a Wall Street Journal reporter, and the article helped other victims find out how to go about having their cases reopened. It's a leap of faith to go public with such a personal story. But to witness three women in our cold case group seeing their offenders identified and to see these women become empowered makes me feel blessed to be a part of it.
Debbie, are there any "lessons learned" from your experience that you would like to share? Advice to other victims or the public?
Debbie: To other victims, I'd like to say don't be afraid to reach out for help. There are wonderful organizations ready and willing to help you. I know how deep the pain feels because sexual assault is such a personal violation. However, the more you keep those emotions bottled up, the harder it gets. Your family and friends might not always understand what you need from them during this time. You will need to tell them because chances are they have never known anyone who has been raped and they are fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing. Hold on strongly to your faith. My family and my faith in God is what really helped me get through the most difficult time of my life.
To the public, remember to stay vigilant and be aware of your surroundings. Communicate with your neighbors and share information about unusual activity or sightings of individuals in the area who don't belong. If you don't have a neighborhood watch, start one. Many police departments have citizens who patrol neighborhoods and report suspicious activity. Get involved.