Three letters put registered sex offender and convicted child rapist Jimmy Cecil Arrowsmith into prison for life: DNA.
In 2003, Spokane Police Detective Jerry Keller used a stuffed bear to interview a severely developmentally disabled 12-year-old girl. The girl used the bear to show Keller how Arrowsmith, who was 56 at the time, got her pregnant.
But without DNA evidence, the case against Arrowsmith would have pitted his vehement denials against the testimony of the girl, who had the mental capacity of a 5- or 6-year-old.
“I’m sure that would have never got to court,” Keller said of the case. “Chances of that winning in court without DNA would have been slim and none.”
Faced with the DNA evidence, Arrowsmith pleaded guilty to first-degree rape of a child. Added to his 1992 conviction for having sex with a 13-year-old relative, the 2003 conviction automatically sent him to prison for life under the state’s persistent offender statute.
Arrowsmith died behind bars not long after his conviction.
Even in the best of cases, prosecutors say they face an uphill battle convincing a jury that an adult abused or sexually assaulted a child, former Spokane County Prosecutor Don Brockett said.
“I’ve tried a lot of (child abuse) cases,” Brockett said. “I’ve had some kids who have been excellent witnesses and jurors still didn’t believe them because they just don’t like to believe this type of thing happens.”
Underlying the legal complexities of prosecuting child abuse is the painful reality that in both physical and sexual abuse cases, children often find themselves in a position where their testimony would hurt the very people who provide them shelter, security and sometimes affection, said Deputy Spokane County Prosecutor John Love.
“One of the worst things is to sign up a case and go through the process when the outcome is not favorable,” Love said. Despite having been abused or molested, and having the courage to come forward, a loss in court “reinforces the kid’s belief that nobody is going to believe me.”
Child molesters don’t leave biological evidence in more than 75 percent of cases, such as inappropriate touching. But if there is biological evidence, DNA becomes critical in proving to a jury that a child is telling the truth, Love said.
“I can say there are cases we have reviewed where allegations have been made and we have decided there was not enough evidence to proceed,” Love said. “But when you have DNA, it certainly is a huge factor in the case. It’s huge corroboration.”
Love said all Spokane Police detectives use forensic interviewer Karen Winston, of Partners with Families & Children: Spokane, to help them build cases around child victims and witnesses. The process helps investigators determine whether the children can understand reality from fantasy or truth from falsehoods.
“You are dealing with a child. Their brains are still developing information and understanding consequences and actions,” Love said.
Keller, who has worked as an officer for a total of 34 years and a detective in the sexual exploitation unit for 17 years, said in the past, investigators built cases using mostly forensic interviews of children.
But with recent advances in DNA technology, many more cases now are prosecuted because they include biological evidence so precise it can narrow down the field of suspects to a mathematical certainty.
“DNA has helped a lot,” Keller said.
So have other forms of technology.
Keller, for example, spends most of his time posing as a 13-year-old girl on the Internet. In one of his stings in 2002, a man took 92 minutes from the time he first introduced himself in a chat room to showing up at an apartment in north Spokane expecting to have sex with someone he thought was a teenage girl.
Instead of the girl, the man found a team of detectives who arrested him.
While DNA is used in many sexual assault cases, it rarely becomes a factor in standard cases of physical child abuse. Love said he believes more adults physically abuse their children than sexually assault them but more sex abuse allegations make it to court.
“Physical abuse has a caveat: Corporal punishment is not against the law in the state of Washington,” Love said. “If you want to punish your child with spanking, as long as you don’t leave a big huge bruise, then it’s a statutory defense.”
The line between punishment and abuse can be difficult to determine.
“If you swat someone on the behind and they cry and there is a red mark – that is a temporary mark. Based on statute, that’s not going to be considered child abuse,” Love said. “But if you take a belt … and leave welts and bruises, that’s going to be more than transient pain.”
Love, who would not elaborate, said his office is currently prosecuting parents for a spanking that resulted in bruises.
“It’s a judgment call,” he said. “If you have a belt or electrical-cord welt on your back, somebody caused that. So then you start asking questions.”
However, Post Falls Detective Dave Beck said marks of physical abuse disappear when children heal and even biological evidence degrades, especially if children wait for months or years to come forward.
“You no longer have a crime scene,” Beck said. “You don’t have the semen, sheets or pubic hair. You don’t have the witnesses. What it boils down to is he said-she said.”