Prosecutorial justifications for sexual assault case rejection: Guarding the "gateway to justice"

Cassia Spohn, Dawn Beichner, Erika Davis-Frenzel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

247 Scopus citations


The decision to charge is a critical stage in the processing of sexual assault cases, as many cases do not proceed beyond this stage. Frohmann (1991) examined prosecutorial justifications for case rejection and concluded that prosecutors construct typifications of credible victims and rape relevant behavior in deciding whether to file charges in sexual assault cases. We use data on 1997 sexual battery cases cleared by arrest in Miami, Florida, as well as information gleaned from interviews with a sample of the attorneys who handled these cases, to replicate and extend Frohmann's work. Although our findings are consistent with Frohmann's assertion that charging decisions primarily reflect the prosecutor's assessment of the likelihood of conviction, they also suggest that this assessment is based on factors other than typifications of rape and rape victims. In a substantial number of the cases examined for this study, the decision to reject charges could be traced to the victim's failure to appear for a prefile interview, refusal to cooperate in the prosecution of the case, or admission that the charges were fabricated. We also found that the decision to file charges was based on a combination of case and victim characteristics, but that cases involving a victim and suspect who were acquainted, related, or intimate partners were more likely than those involving a victim and suspect who were strangers to be prosecuted. We conclude that prosecutors' charging decisions are guided by a set of "focal concerns" (Steffensmeier, et al. 1998) that revolve around reducing uncertainty and securing convictions and that incorporate beliefs about real rapes and legitimate victims.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)206-235
Number of pages30
JournalSocial Problems
Issue number2
StatePublished - May 2001
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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