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LSU Law Professor Lisa Avalos’ work on behalf of sexual assault survivors featured in new documentary

Professor Lisa Avalos presenting at the 2023 EVAWI Conference in Chicago.

Professor Lisa Avalos presenting at the 2023 EVAWI Conference in Chicago.

Whether she’s teaching in the classroom, serving as an expert witness in the courtroom, sharing her scholarship at legal symposia around the world—or appearing in a new Netflix documentary—LSU Law Professor Lisa Avalos is driven by an unwavering commitment to the survivors of sexual assault and trafficking.

“Anything to get the message out,” said Avalos. “This is all about the survivors.”

In “Victim/Suspect,” a documentary that premiered on May 23, Avalos shares her expertise with investigative journalist and co-producer Rachel de Leon, who travels across the country exploring cases in which young women were charged with falsely filing a police report, arrested, and even imprisoned after going to police to report being a victim of sexual assault.

“Nobody who is sexually assaulted should have to go through something like this,” said Avalos, adding she greatly appreciated the opportunity to appear in the film and share some of her scholarship with an audience who may not have otherwise heard it.

Avalos joined the LSU Law faculty in 2018, having previously taught at the University of Arkansas School of Law and Georgetown University Law Center, where she launched her academic career in 2011. While her research interests include criminal law and procedure, with an emphasis on sexual offenses and gender-based violence, she is especially renowned for her expertise on accusations of false reporting in sexual assault cases.

“Professor Avalos has distinguished herself as an advocate and leader with respect to legal and social issues related to sexual assault. Not only is she a distinguished scholar in this arena, but she has served as an expert witness and has been sought out internationally to offer training to police on the understanding of victims of sexual violence,” said LSU Law Professor Ray Diamond, who has co-organized several high-profile symposia with Avalos as part of his work as director of George W. and Jean H. Pugh Institute. “She is a real asset to the university.”

Avalos was instrumental in bringing Louisiana First Lady Donna Edwards to the Law Center as part of the “Improving Criminal Justice Responses to Sex Trafficking” symposium in October 2022. Earlier that year, Avalos also helped organize the “Seeking Justice for Survivors of Sexual Assault” symposium at LSU Law, which featured Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, who presided over the 2018 Ingham County, Michigan sentencing of Larry Nassar, the longtime physician of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team who was accused of sexually assaulting hundreds of girls and women. On September 8, 2023, the Pugh Institute will host a symposium on “Victim/Suspect,” featuring Detective Carlton Hershman, who appears in the documentary, and Wendy Patrick, a Deputy District Attorney in San Diego with over 26 years of prosecution experience, among other speakers.

In recognition of her extensive scholarly work and independent dedication to helping end gender-based violence, Avalos was honored with the 2023 Visionary Award from the End Violence Against Women International (EVAWI) nonprofit organization.

“Dr. Lisa Avalos’ research significantly advances our understanding of the law and practice surrounding criminal justice responses to sexual assault, with particular focus on the system’s most egregious failures,” said Dr. Kimberly Lonsway, director of research for EVAWI. “The application of Dr. Avalos’ scholarship—combined with her tireless advocacy on behalf of individual survivors—helps ensure continued reforms to prevent such failures in the future.”

Professor Lisa Avalos smiling holding an award on a stage with two individuals.

Pictured (from left to right): EVAWI CEO and Founder Joanne Archambault, Professor Lisa Avalos and EVAWI President Ann Burdges.

Avalos traveled to Chicago in April to accept the Visionary Award at EVAWI’s 2023 International Conference on Sexual Assault, Domestic Violence, and Fighting for Change, at which she was invited to present a plenary to the roughly 2,500 people in attendance. Her presentation, entitled “Eliminating the Wheel of Fortune: Ending Practices that Lead to Prosecuting Survivors,” was drawn from her years of research and serving as an expert witness on behalf of a sexual assault survivors. One case in Virginia featured a woman who was charged by police with filing a false report in 2021. The woman was acquitted after Avalos and another expert testified on her behalf. The judge found that the prosecution had not met its burden of proving that the woman had actually lied to police.

“I told the audience I was giving them the anatomy of a failed rape investigation. If you want to conduct a failed rape investigation, here’s what you do, but if you actually want to succeed at rape investigation, then here are the practices that lead to success,” Avalos said, noting police overseeing a failed rape investigation often doubt the survivor, conduct an incomplete investigation, rely on confirmation bias, cherry pick evidence, and pressure the survivor to retract their initial statement, among other critical mistakes.

In recognizing Avalos with the 2023 Visionary Award, the EVAWI noted: “At great personal and professional cost, she has stood defiantly in the corner with these survivors and fought tirelessly for their interests, ultimately bringing about change in individual cases and broader criminal justice responses.”

Avalos acknowledged the inevitable blowback from some in the law enforcement community and the broader public when someone in her position publicly criticizes a high-profile investigation or highlights failures in the legal system but added: “If you have something like this that you are passionate about, you don’t let the negativity get to you.”

As for being honored with the 2023 Visionary Award, Avalos said she is extremely humbled by the recognition.

“I’m still in shock. I’ve never expected to receive any awards for my work,” she said. “It’s a great honor, but the work itself is truly my greatest reward.”