By Patrick Keating
CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER
Thanks to $4 million provided to the Michigan State Police Crime Lab, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy is better equipped to process thousands of untested rape kits found back in 2009.
Rape kits cost about $1,550 to analyze.
11,300 rape kits were discovered in August 2009, when Worthy received a communication from one of her assistant prosecutors, who had been on a tour of a Detroit Police property storage facility with the Michigan State Police, which had assumed the duties of the Detroit Police Crime Lab.
“That was the first time anyone in my office knew about those untested, ignored, stockpiled rape kits,” Worthy said.
Some of those kits date back a quarter century.
Asked how likely is it that present or future rape survivors won’t bother to have a rape kit done, in the belief that it’d be a waste of time because these kits sat untouched, Worthy said she’s hoping to show, via various interviews she’s given, that her office is trying everything it can to correct the problem.
She also said most of the funds have been raised to test these rape kits.
“We are vigorously prosecuting any of the DNA hits we get as a result of the testing,” she said. “I’m hoping that makes more people come forward.”
She added that the prosecutor’s office has been taking the matter seriously from the moment it learned about these untested rape kits.
“Rape is already among the lowest reported crimes,” Worthy said. “The lowest crime where arrests are made, and very hard to prosecute. So I’m hoping now, with the attention this is getting and the work we’ve been doing on this for the last four years, that will embolden rape victims to come forward, more than before.”
Asked how much potential damage there could be in terms of people who’d been wrongly convicted filing lawsuits or other forms of redress, Worthy said it’s a possibility, but added that her office hasn’t come across such cases as yet.
She also said the prosecutor’s office has partnered with the State Appellate Defender Association to review cases.
She added that it’s a detailed and time-consuming process; and said that if her office finds any cases where someone was wrongly convicted, it would take the proper steps. This could be releasing that person from custody or ordering a new trial.
“It doesn’t automatically mean that person would be released,” Worthy said, adding that it will take years to clear this backlog.
“We’ve already been working on it four years and we’ve gotten to the point where we have— and I’m just estimating— about 65 to 70 cases that we are investigating, after we’ve gotten hits,” she said.
She added that there are about a dozen cases where her office has either issued warrants and the persons have been prosecuted or it’s in the process of issuing the warrant.
“So, it’s a very slow process,” she said.
Worthy also said that when her office first started on this effort, there was no nexus between the rape kits and the police reports.
“So, this office had to look through every single kit, open the kit, get any kind of identifying information out of the kit, like the name of the victim, where it happened, and the date,” she said, adding that her office never touched the scientific evidence.
“And then we had to create the database between that and any police reports or police files we could find,” Worthy said. “That took us almost a year, to open up 11,000 kits. Again, we’ve been working consistently on this since 2009, so it’s going to be five years, probably. And that’s probably an ambitious guesstimate.”
“This is a national problem,” she said. “We’re certainly not the first city or the first state that’s had this issue; it’s a 50 state issue. But certainly since it’s happened here most states that we’ve looked at, they were testing kits but they just got behind. It was backlogged.”
According to an August 2010 Marie Claire article, more than 180,000 rape kits remained untested nationwide.
Worthy said her office doesn’t know if the kits were ignored or if the police didn’t have the resources.
Asked whether someone could or would be prosecuted if it turns out the kits were ignored, Worthy said her office’s focus has been on trying to solve the issue, not on determining blame.
“There are no plans to investigate anyone or charge anyone for that,” she said, adding that she can’t say, 100 percent, whether her office won’t do so in the future.
“If we saw any alarming evidence that would compel us into going into that direction, we certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that,” she said. “But we haven’t seen anything like that, that would rise to a criminal nature.”
She also said the Michigan State Police Crime Lab will be taking the responsibility to find the best competitive rates to have these kits tested.
“So, again it benefits our office greatly,” she said. “There’s no question about that and we’re very grateful, beyond grateful that the attorney general and the governor did dedicate this money for this cause.”
In a press conference last month, Attorney General Bill Schuette said the rape kits were essentially stamped, “return to sender” and that the thousands of unexamined rape kits allowed violent attackers to remain loose on the streets of Michigan.
In a written statement, John Sellek, spokesman for the Attorney General, said, “the first and foremost focus of our efforts is to get the kits tested to start down the road to justice for the victims of these attacks. And, to take anyone off the streets who has committed violent crimes yet has escaped justice.”
In a statement, Inspector Marlon Wilson of the Criminal Investigations Bureau of the Detroit Police Department said, “The Detroit Police Department is currently working in conjunction with several agencies to address this matter. The department along with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, Michigan State Police Crime Lab and Victim Advocacy Groups are working collaboratively to research this issue so that we can identify the reason for the backlog which is aiding us in developing procedures to ensure that this type of situation does not reoccur in the future.”
In a separate statement, Sergeant Eren L. Stephens of the Police Department’s Office of Public Information wrote, “Over 2,000 kits were tested and Detroit followed the same nationally accepted testing protocols utilized by most major cities (Philadelphia, Boston, Phoenix, Chicago, New Orleans) (i.e. cases where the complainant did not want to prosecute the case; cases where the prosecutor advised that testing of the kit was not necessary; cases in which the offender admitted that he had sex with the victim were not tested unless the prosecutor requested it; cases where kits were not tested because the complainant refused to make a report or talk to the police; and kits collected prior to the establishment of the CODIS system (national offender database) in the late 1990’s- early 2000’s were not tested by any agency unless a suspect was identified). Detroit’s crime lab received FBI accredidation and started submitting profiles in the early 2000’s and received its first DNA cold case grant (for sexual assault kits) to began testing historical kits in the mid 2000’s after we began submitting profiles into the national CODIS database.”
Worthy said the Michigan State Police will either test the kits or send them out to be tested.
“They will be doing all the negotiation in terms of what lab it goes to, etc., and then providing us with the results so we can use the results to have the cases prosecuted,” she said.
With the Michigan State Police Crime Lab having received that $4 million, Worthy said her office can now focus on raising the resources so that cases can be investigated and prosecuted after the kits are tested.
The one overriding thing Worthy wants people to know is that rape doesn’t stop at Eight Mile Road. Nor does it stop at the state line. She said the rape kits processed thus far have produced DNA hits in California, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, Florida, Indiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Alabama, North Carolina, Louisiana and the District of Columbia.
Worthy said these rapists either raped in those other jurisdictions before coming to Michigan or after leaving the state.
She also said that out of 413 cases that have been tested so far, 199 had CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) hits; and out of that, 30 to 33 individuals were identifiable serial rapists.
Worthy said she wants rape victims and everybody that loves them to know that they take sexual assault very seriously in Wayne county.
“We are spending a lot of time and resources and we are dedicated to making sure we can prosecute as many of these old cases as can,” she said. “And we are dedicated to making sure this will not happen in the future.”