It has been almost a year since her assault last August, but the Alexandria secretary says the details are still sharp: She was typing in her office late one afternoon when a young male courier startled her from behind, wrapped his hands around her throat and squeezed until she passed out.
The woman reported the incident to police and testified six months later at the trial that ended in her assailant's conviction for assault with intent to defile.
If the attack had happened today, the secretary said recently, she might just have kept quiet about it.
In the aftermath of Cathleen Crowell Webb's recent recantation of a rape accusation she made eight years ago against Gary Dotson, rape victims may face more skeptical juries, she said.
"I really resent Webb going so public with it. To the rest of us who really had something done to us, and really went through a lot of pain . . . I think, 'Oh my God, do people think I made it up?' " she said. "If it happened now, and I weren't hurt, I wouldn't go to the police."
In the wake of the Webb case, many local rape counselors, prosecutors from across the country and experts on the subject of sexual crimes fear more women are beginning to share the Alexandria secretary's feelings. Rape, a crime that authorities estimate already goes unreported one-half to two-thirds of the time, may be reported even less as women, afraid that they will not be believed, keep silent, they say.
Susan Carparelli, coordinator of the Women's Health and Safety Program in Alexandria, said the Webb case infuriated many of the rape victims she counsels.
"From victims, there has been a lot of anger since that case came out," she said. "There is anger at this kind of negative attention being focused on rape, that their truthfulness and veracity would be challenged because of someone else."
In May, Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson commuted the prison sentence of Dotson to time already served, after Webb testified she had fabricated the rape charge that had put Dotson behind bars six years earlier.
"We have had, since the Webb case, a situation where a woman absolutely refused to go to the police," said Brenda Berry, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Victims' Advocacy Service in Prince William County. "I've heard people say, 'Well, now I know why women don't report rape.' I would not doubt that this will have some effect."
Corinne Magee, assistant commonwealth's attorney in Fairfax County, said publicity about Webb and about child abuse cases in which children later said they had invented the accusations, also may affect the way juries judge sexual assault victims.
"It's changed the standard from reasonable doubt to no doubt whatsoever," she said. "Jurors now are apparently starting to say that, without some physical evidence, we're not going to convict the guy."
"I think it has to have some effect on juries," said Prince George's State's Attorney Arthur A. Marshall Jr.
Two weeks ago, an Arlington Circuit Court jury took just half an hour to find Milton N. Bullock not guilty of rape, sodomy and abduction in a case that took 10 years to come to trial.
Judith Stevens, 35, who went public with the story of her assault years before, in an effort to bring Bullock to trial, believes the jurors may have had Webb in mind when they listened to and weighed her testimony.
"All the publicity that has attended Webb's recantation cannot be excluded as a factor in the Bullock case," said Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Henry E. Hudson. "To an extent, it is on the minds of potential jurors everywhere."
The Bullock decision "was the most surprising 'not guilty' verdict I've ever gotten," said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Helen Fahey, who prosecuted the case.
While several jurors interviewed after the trial said the Webb case was not discussed during deliberations, "I'm inclined to think it had a subtle effect on their perception of rapes and rape victims," Fahey said.
Thomas J. Harrigan, one of Bullock's attorneys, denied that the Webb case had any impact on that trial.
"I don't think it's going to have any bearing on any case," he said, adding, "Maybe the Webb case should raise the consciousness of jurors to say, 'Let's look for some hard evidence in this case.' "
But hard evidence that could corroborate a victim's testimony often is absent in rape trials.
In the Bullock case, laboratory tests of stains on Stevens' skirt proved inconclusive. A knife that police recovered at the scene, which matched the description of a weapon Stevens said her assailant used, was thrown away in 1979 because police believed the case would never come to trial. Bullock had fled to Sweden shortly after his arrest in 1975, and early attempts to extradite him were fruitless.
Although few rape cases are fraught with the problems of a 10-year hiatus, Hudson said: "In a large majority of the cases that go to trial today, there is no blood, no fingerprints, no hairs, no witness identification. Unfortunately, in the real world, that type of evidence is rarely seen."
That is why some prosecutors are worried that the Webb case may jeopardize future rape trials, which often turn on whether or not the jury believes the victim.
"The whole issue of victim veracity has been so absolutely central to the rape issue throughout the decades," said Mary Ann Largen, a policy analyst at the Center for Women's Policy Studies in Washington and former lobbyist for the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
Jury verdicts in rape cases, she said, often involve "a judgment call on somebody else's behavior," and the actions of rape victims are subject to particularly heavy scrutiny.
"If you are a mugging victim," Largen said, "you don't have to justify why you were taking the subway at 8 o'clock at night."
Officers in the sex offense units of Washington area police departments said they have not noticed a decline in the number of reported rapes recently and, in general, do not feel that the Webb incident will seriously hinder their work.
"It doesn't help us; all these years, we've tried to say the word of the woman alone is enough to convict on a rape charge ," said Capt. John Collins of the D.C. Police sex offense branch.
While women may be "a little bit more nervous" about reporting rapes, Collins said, he believes that they will continue to do so.
Police, prosecutors and researchers all stressed that any apprehension that more false rape reports might be filed -- a fear heightened after Webb's denial -- is largely unfounded.
"The important thing to understand is that most rapes don't get reported anyway. The incidence of false reports is a minuscule problem compared with the problem of people not reporting," said Dean Kilpatrick, a clinical psychologist and researcher in the Laboratory for the Study of Violent Behavior, part of the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston.
But some counselors and prosecutors reason that jurors eventually will forget Cathleen Webb, and predict that the case will lose significance against a decade of legal reforms and changing attitudes about sexual crimes.
"I think it's going to be just a blip on the screen," said Robert Dean, assistant state's attorney in Montgomery County.
In addition, women such as a 31-year-old Arlington bank clerk give them hope. The woman, who said she was a victim of "date rape" 11 years ago, said fear and guilt kept her from reporting the incident.
Her sister had died six months before the rape and, "I felt this was just another bad thing happening to me; I had a lot of guilt myself," the woman said.
"When I see women who are strong enough to go through with it and get slapped in the face by the system," she said, "it's real hard for me."
The woman said that 11 years has fueled her anger and resolve about rape. She added that she would encourage friends or colleagues to report a rape and that, if she were assaulted now, "I would definitely report it; I wouldn't care what the circumstances were."