Rape survivors say they were treated poorly by DA’s office, not given notifications or a voice

photo by: Contributed Photo

Suzanne Valdez was elected to serve as Douglas County district attorney in November 2020.

The Douglas County District Attorney’s Office failed to notify multiple women that the man who viciously raped and beat them would likely be getting out of prison decades earlier than expected. The reason the office didn’t tell them? It decided the women were better off not knowing.

District Attorney Suzanne Valdez’s office didn’t want to open old wounds, it said after being confronted by the women on the lack of notification.

But the wounds of being raped don’t ever really close, as one of the women told the Journal-World this week, “and now they are gaping.”

“We already had our voices taken away,” she said, “when we were suffocated — and when we were blindfolded (during the rapes), we had our eyesight taken away. We were muffled and beaten and terrified.”

“And so how dare you?” the woman said, questioning the judgment and later explanations of Valdez’s office, which has touted itself as a beacon of victims’ rights and trauma-informed practice since Valdez, a Democrat, won election in 2020.

The man who terrorized multiple women in the mid-1990s is Cory Elkins, a serial rapist who was convicted in 2008 of four counts of rape and three counts of aggravated criminal sodomy. Two women told the court how Elkins violently and mercilessly attacked them for hours — a trauma that they will live with forever. A third woman, whose case was not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had run, described similar brutality at Elkins’ hands.

photo by: Journal-World File

Cory Elkins addresses the judge in Douglas County District Court during his sentencing in a rape case in 2008.

Elkins was sentenced to the maximum 48 years in prison. But many years later, the University of Kansas law school’s Project for Innocence and Post Conviction Remedies decided to take up Elkins’ case and succeeded in getting his sentence vastly reduced under a new law regarding sentencing guidelines. The Project did not contest the rape convictions. Rather, it said that Elkins’ sentence was illegal because a felony — an unrelated burglary case in Elkins’ past — was misclassified as a person felony instead of as a nonperson felony, which bumped Elkins into a more severe box on the state sentencing grid, which judges use in handing down penalties.

Though the Project has not touted Elkins’ case like it has other cases where it helped prove actual innocence, the Project has defended helping Elkins get his sentence reduced because it deemed the misclassification in his sentencing history an injustice. The Project’s director, Jean Phillips, said she understood that the reduction would make people unhappy but an illegality is an illegality.

The DA’s office conceded the matter, and the district court in 2021 held a hearing and ultimately ordered a “corrected” sentence, which knocked 30 years off of Elkins’ nearly half-century sentence. He is now scheduled to be released in 2025. He will be in his mid-50s instead of in his 80s, as the women had expected.

Although their victim impact statements from 2008 were submitted by the DA’s office in the resentencing, the women were never told that the resentencing effort was underway, and they were not notified about or invited to attend Elkins’ resentencing hearing, at which they would have had the opportunity to tell Judge Stacey Donovan of their ongoing trauma, which one of the women likened to their own “life sentences.”

According to the women, they would still not know that all of this had even taken place if one of them had not recently happened to check the Kansas Department of Corrections website and noticed — to her disbelief — that Elkins’ release date had been changed.

It was then too late to have their voices heard, even if the resentencing would ultimately have turned out the same.

Further frustration ensued, the women said, as they encountered unanswered messages regarding how they had been treated. Letters expressing their frustration to the DA, the Project, the chancellor of KU, the governor and others were met with silence, they said.

Valdez, they said, never personally contacted them or personally apologized for what they argued was a clear violation of the state’s victims bill of rights, which says crime victims should be notified of proceedings.

Valdez’s office told KMBC 9 News in an earlier story about the case that the victims bill of rights was only “advisory” in nature.

Eventually one of the women was able to speak on a conference call with Senior Assistant District Attorney David Greenwald, who represented the DA’s office at the resentencing. The call also included the woman’s father, who is a judge in another state. The Journal-World reached out via text to Greenwald for comment, but he did not respond.

The woman said that Greenwald apologized to her and acknowledged a mistake in the failure to notify. She said she did not recall his mentioning what Valdez’s office has blamed the failure to notify on: a victim-witness coordinator who assured Valdez’s office that the women would only be retraumatized if they knew about the hearing.

“I mean, did she really tell them not to notify us?” the woman told the Journal-World. “That is not a trauma-informed approach because you’re putting the victims in danger by not letting them know what’s going on with their perpetrator.”

Additionally, she found the stance “condescending.”

“We have the right to make the decision if we want to be there, or if we can handle it, or if we’re done with it and we want to move on,” she said. “That’s our decision to make.”

The Journal-World has asked the DA’s office for information regarding the victim-witness coordinator whose advice they said they relied on.

The DA’s office indicated only that the coordinator was highly regarded, had worked in the office for many years and was now retired. The office said the decision not to notify the women was an “extraordinary exception” to its usual practice. The Journal-World was not able to contact the person it believes to be the coordinator to verify the DA’s account of what happened. A message for that person went unanswered Monday.

But the women told the Journal-World that they never spoke to anyone at the DA’s office in a way that would have indicated that they didn’t want to be notified or to have a voice in legal matters concerning Elkins.

They said they found the notion baffling: One, because why would a highly regarded coordinator recommend not communicating with a victim?; and, two, it was the women’s determination and their testimony that brought Elkins to justice in the first place, so why would they then prefer to be kept in the dark?

The case, as the Journal-World reported at the time, was solved many years after the rapes occurred because of the determination of one of the women to have evidence retested in light of advanced DNA technology. All of the women reported the rapes, which was not always the case with victims in the 1990s, and they were adamant about seeking justice.

And even if the coordinator believed the women would be worse off for knowing, it was still, the women contend, the DA’s ultimate responsibility to provide notification.

The DA’s office, in lieu of answering questions Monday afternoon, directed the Journal-World to an online statement released Monday by Valdez touting her office’s “victim-centered” approach.

“Never do we intend to further victimize a survivor. However, State v. Cory Elkins, a case from 2008 that was prosecuted by the prior administration, has illustrated that trauma is real and can resurface at any time,” the statement reads.

Valdez, while acknowledging that the victims weren’t notified on the advice of the victim-witness coordinator, said her office advocated for the maximum possible sentence allowable at the resentencing, given the changed law.

“As the prosecutor readied for the resentencing of Cory Elkins, my office had one person, a veteran victim-witness coordinator, on staff who had been involved in the original prosecution and sentencing,” Valdez said in the statement. “My office followed her recommendation to not re-traumatize the survivors by bringing them back for sentencing again.”

One of the rape survivors said it felt like Valdez’s office was “throwing someone who just retired under the bus” for a decision that the office ultimately bore responsibility for.

The Journal-World asked the DA’s office if the victim-witness coordinator’s recommendation against notification existed in writing, and the office did not respond.

Valdez’s statement said her office has spoken to one of the women “several times” to explain the law and to express empathy. Her statement further indicated that the office intended “to improve our victim-centered approach” by adding an additional victim witness coordinator.

Valdez’s statement was little consolation to the women.

One of them said the office’s stance, in contrast to being trauma-informed, was paternalistic and made them feel like children — like they didn’t know what was best for them and their own healing.

The woman said she and others had responded to the DA’s statement online but she indicated that their comments had been removed from the DA’s Facebook post. When asked whether the DA’s office, a government entity constrained by the First Amendment, had removed such comments, a spokesperson for the office, Cheryl Cadue, said the office’s social media policy “states that comments can be deleted.”

“Our office social media platforms are used for informational purposes only and are not public forums,” Cadue said.


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