A Kansas woman who used a 134-year-old state law to convene a citizen grand jury after a prosecutor declined to file rape charges against a man she accused of attacking her said Wednesday she was angry but not surprised that jurors didn’t bring charges in the case.
Madison Smith, 23, of McPherson, gathered hundreds of signatures to empanel the grand jury after she said a fellow student at Bethany College slapped and strangled her during a sexual encounter in his dorm room in February 2018. The student, Jared Stolzenburg, was sentenced to two years of probation after pleading guilty to aggravated battery.
The grand jury convened on Oct. 18 and Smith was told of its decision Tuesday.
Smith said the grand jury’s refusal to bring rape charges reinforces society’s reluctance to deal honestly and fairly with sexual assault victims.
“I was very angry that people just don’t see rape for what it is and refuse to be educated about it,” Smith said. “I was also angry that I had to take so many steps that victims should not have to take and it still didn’t work out as we wanted it to.”
Defense attorney Brent Boyer said Wednesday he had not represented Stolzenburg for some time and declined to comment on the grand jury’s decision.
Kansas is one of six states that allow citizens to petition for grand juries, using a law that was passed in 1887. Smith’s case is believed to be the first time the law was used by someone claiming sexual assault.
Smith said her encounter with Stolzenburg was consensual until he started slapping and strangling her to the point where she began to lose consciousness and she feared he was going to kill her. She said she couldn’t verbally withdraw consent because she was being choked.
When McPherson County Attorney Gregory Benefiel declined to file rape charges, Smith used the Kansas law to call her own grand jury. She stood on street corners and told her story to strangers in order to gather hundreds of signatures on petitions. And she did it twice after the first petition was declined because of technicality.
Despite the grand jury’s decision, Smith said she does not regret publicizing her case and hopes it will bring changes to how sexual assault victims are treated by law enforcement officials and society in general.
“I’m just sick and tired of people being all hush-hush about rape,” she said. “I wanted to bring awareness not only to my case but to the fact that victims of rape and sexual assault do not get justice or the treatment they should.”
Benefiel did not immediately return a call seeking comment on the grand jury’s decision. In an interview in May, he said sex crimes are “extremely challenging to prosecute” because jurors are looking “for that CSI type of evidence.”
He said he believed he and Smith were both seeking “truth and justice” but had different ideas on what that would be in this case.
Smith’s mother, Mandy, who works at Bethany College in Lindsborg, about 70 miles (112.65 kilometers) north of Wichita, said she was proud of her daughter’s determination to stand up for herself and shine a light on how poorly sexual assault victims are treated by the legal system.
“She was not treated with any empathy or dignity,” Mandy Smith said. “Prosecutors do not understand how to do their jobs in a trauma-informed way and that is a huge part of the problem in these cases … This case should help get consent education out there. It should be everywhere and it’s not.”
Justin Boardman, a retired detective who trains police and prosecutors on investigating sexual crimes, said law enforcement officers and prosecutors often are “speaking a different language” than sexual assault victims, largely because of cultural biases about such crimes.
He said law enforcement officers and the public often question why a victim didn’t scream, or fight back, or why victims sometimes struggle to tell their stories or don’t cry. All those responses are related to how the brain reacts to trauma, he said, and there is “a huge gap in miscommunication” between victims and law enforcement.
Madison Smith, who graduated in May and is working as a medical assistant while applying to nursing schools, said she was encouraged by the support she received from family, friends and strangers during the process.
“We swung the bat as hard as we could and unfortunately we missed,” she said. “I just had to know that I tried everything I could.”