Understanding Sexual Assault Cases: A Comprehensive Guide to Rape and Aggravated Rape Defense Strategies

Sexual assault Law

April 03, 2023 by Anthony Riccio

Gary Schara from West Springfield, Massachusetts, was found guilty of aggravated rape and murder of Lisa Ziegert in 1992. Lisa, a middle school teacher aide from Agawam, MA disappeared from a gift store where she was working at night and was found in the woods four miles away, four days later, raped, stabbed, and killed.

Police zeroed in on Gary over the years, but did not get a conviction until the DNA evidence and his own admission were heard in court in 2017. The jury heard that his DNA matched the one picked at the scene of the crime, and the defendant later penned down documents admitting the crime. He will serve a life sentence in a Massachusetts prison for the crimes.

What is Rape and Aggravated Rape?

Rape is a form of sexual assault that involves sexual intercourse against the victim’s will. It may be done by physical force, abuse of authority, coercion, or with a person incapable of giving valid consent, such as a person with diminished mental capacity or a minor.

According to Massachusetts laws, Chapter 265:22b, “aggravated rape,” is any rape that occurs in the following circumstances:

  • Rape committed by a joint enterprise (together with others)
  • Rape that results from or is committed with other acts that cause serious bodily injury
  • Rape that happens during an attempted or actual commission of other offenses such as armed robbery, assault, and battery by means of a dangerous weapon, unarmed robbery, unarmed burglary, kidnapping, breaking and entering during nighttime, entering a dwelling house without breaking at night, entering without breaking at night and carrying a dangerous weapon.

Penalties for Rape and Aggravated Rape

Convicted offenders for non-aggravated rape are punishable in state prison for up to 20 years, with subsequent offenders getting life imprisonment or any number of years. On the other hand, those accused of aggravated rape may be sentenced to life imprisonment or any number of years. If the offender had a weapon, they get a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years and 15 years for subsequent cases.

Rape and Aggravated Rape Defense Strategies

In light of the possible punishments, the accused should have robust strategies to counter the evidence brought by the plaintiff. The accused can defend themselves in various ways to avoid a conviction for rape and subsequent sentencing. Here are some of the probable defense strategies:

Claim of Actual Innocence

The most basic form of defense against rape and aggravated rape is innocence, also called “presenting an alibi.” In this defense strategy, the accused proves they were not with the victim at the time of the offense. Therefore, they would not have committed the offense.

For example, if one is accused of a rape that happened on a particular day in Washington but happened to be there at that time, they can prove that they were not at the crime scene. The court may accept such evidence as hotel bills, air tickets, and any receipts that bear the defendant’s information. They may also call in a witness, such as a friend or a family member that had traveled with them or was with them at the time of the purported offense.


Eyewitness accounts are usually part of the evidence produced in court by the plaintiff. The defender may claim that the victim actually misidentified them during the police interrogations. This is a strong defense, especially where the evidence has been gathered improperly. The defense may also challenge police lineup and photo book procedures by claiming they were done that way to give the victim a head start in choosing a specific mugshot or person.

Where DNA evidence is available, it can accurately establish if the defendant did the act or was at the crime scene, such as in the case of Gary Schara above. Otherwise, the burden of proof lies with the prosecution. If the accused raises a reasonable doubt about whether the identification was correctly made, it increases the chances of an acquittal.

Consent to Sexual Activity

This defense strategy works where the plaintiff is over the age of consent, which is 16 years, and has sufficient mental capacity. It does not work in cases where the victim was found to have been drugged, unconscious, or suffering from mental conditions that affected their judgment. It also does not apply where the victim suffered bodily harm or died.

One of the elements of the charge is that sexual intercourse must occur against the will of the victim. The defense can create a robust defense by showing that the victim consented to the act. Unfortunately, it is hard for the defendant to provide direct evidence of consent without being cross-examined or testifying. Most judges do not allow defendants to use the sexual history of the victim to prove consent, as each act requires its own consent.

On the other hand, most states have a strict liability standard. This means that the defendant cannot argue that they were unaware that the victim was incapable of consenting to the act. Where the victim was capable of consenting to the act but did not directly give it, the defendant using this defense strategy should not have acted in a wildly irresponsible manner that led to harm on the part of the victim.

Mental Incapacity or Insanity

Mental incapacity or insanity makes a person unable to reason for their actions and may cause them to behave erratically or commit crimes they would not have committed if in the right mental capacity. A defendant facing a rape or aggravated rape charge may claim they were mentally incapacitated or had an illness at the time of the crime that prevented them from making an accurate judgment.

In Massachusetts, all defendants facing criminal charges are presumed to be sane until they can prove they were not at the time of the crime. Therefore, the burden of proving insanity lies with the defendant. Insanity must be established with convincing, clear evidence. This evidence is more substantial than the preponderance of evidence used in many cases.

The preponderance of evidence means that there is a greater than 50% chance that the claims are valid. However, clear and convincing evidence implies that there is no doubt that the claims are true.

Second, the defendant must prove that they either did not understand the consequences of the crime they were committing or, if they understood the implications, they could not tell if they were doing wrong.

Sexual Assault Defense

The defendant can apply various defense strategies to their rape and aggravated rape cases, as long as they do not contradict each other. For example, they may claim misidentification and that they were not at the scene of the crime. They may also capitalize on gaps in the prosecution’s evidence. Each strategy, however, must be supported by solid evidence of claims that provide proof beyond doubt in support of the claims. Call Riccio Law at 617-404-8878 to schedule a free consultation.