As Detroit Rape Kits Sit Untested, Justice for Victims Is Denied

Paul Egan and Gina Damron, Detroit Free Press, April 21, 2014

Nearly five years after the discovery of 11,000 abandoned rape evidence kits in a Detroit police warehouse sparked outrage, only about 2,000 of the kits have undergone DNA testing, allowing serial rapists to remain free and in some cases commit more attacks.

All the kits are finally expected to get tested this year because the state Legislature appropriated $4 million to send them to private labs.

As important as the DNA is, testing alone is only a part of the equation in getting justice for the hundreds of people who have been victimized and getting dangerous sexual predators off the streets. Testing on the kits has already produced more than 500 hits with named suspects on a national DNA database, but police and prosecutors haven’t even begun to follow up on more than 150 of those leads.

The reasons for the delays are varied. Only on TV crime shows can investigators get a DNA hit and rush out and charge a suspect, officials say. In real life, and particularly in cases dating back a decade or more–as many of the thousands of discovered rape kits are–once evidence is tested, victims must be found, witnesses must be interviewed or re-interviewed, and old police files must be located or reconstructed.

Further complicating matters in the Detroit rape cases has been a lack of resources–money, as well as police, prosecutors and investigators–a lack of communication and coordination among the investigating agencies, and a loss of trust among victims in the agencies that seemingly mishandled their cases, allowing several attackers to victimize others.

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The 7,400 rape kits recently sent to private labs are expected to produce as many as 2,000 more hits on the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, creating a massive volume of follow-up work metro Detroit officials are ill-equipped to handle.

“The pile is going to get higher and higher, deeper and deeper,” said Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who was hired by the National Institute of Justice to evaluate how the Detroit rape kits were handled.

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The problem in Detroit is aggravated because the Detroit Police Department, which mishandled the rape kits to begin with, wants to help clear the backlog, but Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy doesn’t want them involved. She says rape victims whose kits were lost don’t trust the DPD and that makes their work counterproductive.

Worthy’s office is in line for a share of the $35 million in rape kit backlog relief money President Barack Obama announced in his recent budget, and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has also promised her money to help with the rape kit investigations. But Worthy couldn’t say recently how much additional help she needs to handle the extra work, let alone how much she is likely to get.

The 2,000 kits tested so far were done in two batches. Detroit Police helped investigate the first 400 randomly selected kits, under Project 400. Worthy obtained a National Institute of Justice grant to work on the next 1,600 and shut the DPD out, instead using investigators in her office.

The two agencies disagree about the success of the Project 400 work. Detroit police say they requested warrants on 66 cases, Worthy’s office approved only 28 of those warrants, and 18 cases remain under investigation. Worthy’s office says Detroit police work produced only 16 warrant requests and four convictions, though five warrants are pending and two cases are currently being prosecuted.

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Worthy says Detroit police need to “finish their original commitment,” to Project 400 where follow-up has been very low.

“They need to concentrate on that right now,” she said. ‘We need to concentrate on the others.”

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Detroit is not alone in having a huge backlog of untested rape kits. The cities of Los Angeles and Memphis and the states of Texas and Illinois have also faced backlogs of thousands of untested kits and Wayne County is in some ways considered a model for its methods in tackling the problem, said Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy at the Joyful Heart.

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