Police say courts should have passed on rape admission

Posted: Sunday, December 30, 2001

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Police at the University of Alaska Fairbanks are disturbed that the court system didn't tell them about a university basketball player's rape admission shortly before he is accused of kidnapping the same woman.

Cameron Watts, 18, admitted the assault on his former girlfriend in a hearing on a domestic violence restraining order. But court officials say they had no obligation to report what he said.

At the Nov. 21 hearing, Watts' 18-year-old former girlfriend said he tied her up and raped her in her dorm room on Nov. 2. Watts, at the hearing, said, ''Her story is correct.''

A magistrate granted the woman a six-month restraining order.

But no one told police. No one is supposed to.

Five hours after the magistrate granted the order, police say Watts kidnapped the woman at knifepoint and held her for several hours.

He faces multiple charges from that incident and the earlier one of kidnapping, rape and assault. Watts has pleaded innocent to all charges.

It wasn't until days later, when they obtained transcripts from the domestic violence hearing, that police learned of Watts' admission in court.

University Police Chief Terry Vrabec said the court should have told someone.

''If I had gotten a call that something serious came up and you might need to look into this, we would have immediately jumped on that,'' Vrabec said. ''I'm sure it's happened numerous times. I'm sure there's some real tragedies out there that we don't know about.''

In the Watts case, Vrabec said also that if his department had known right away, the people involved would have been questioned immediately.

But Ron Woods, administrator for the 4th Judicial District, which includes Fairbanks, said relaying information to police is not the role of the courts.

''That could compromise the integrity of the court as a neutral entity,'' Woods said. ''The court on its own can't issue a criminal action.''

Transcripts from the Watts domestic violence hearing show the court staying separate of criminal matters, while acknowledging the issue.

''You have damaged her in a manner she will never forget,'' the magistrate said to Watts. ''If she went to file criminal charges instead of a domestic violence order, your future would have been ruined.''

What is said during domestic violence hearings can be reviewed later by law enforcement agencies and used to press criminal charges, as in the Watts case. But it's up to the law agencies to ask for the files.

''In the adult arena, the system is very dependent on somebody that is the victim of the crime reporting it,'' Woods said. ''A court may react and say 'Maybe you should contact law enforcement or the district attorney's office if you feel you've been a victim of a crime.'''

The court is obligated to make a report to agencies such as the state Division of Family and Youth Services when children are the victims, Woods said.

In civil cases where lawyers are present, there is also no obligation to report a criminal admission, according to Steve Van Goor, ethics counsel for the Alaska Bar Association.

''There's no ethical rule for a lawyer,'' Van Goor said. ''There may be a moral obligation.''

Vrabec said the fact that criminal admissions made under oath are not being investigated sends the wrong message -- that people can admit a wrongdoing under oath and not be punished for it. He says law agencies should be given a way of learning about criminal admissions made in civil court settings where police and prosecutors are not present.

But Brenda Stanfill, executive director of the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, doesn't think the police should have a pipeline to the domestic violence hearings.

Mandatory reporting might deter a victim from going to court to obtain a restraining order, she said. Many victims want court protection but don't want authorities to make an arrest.

''Reporting a sexual assault is very, very hard,'' Stanfill said. ''There's still something very degrading, humiliating about it.'' And, she said, it can lead to escalation of the violence against the victim.

Michaelyn Contreras, a domestic violence coordinator for Alaska State Troopers, said a restraining order is at least a step in the right direction for a reluctant victim. She believes it's not the system, but why the crimes occur that needs to be scrutinized.

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