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Joyful Heart in the News
Cleveland police join cities nationwide testing old evidence from sexual-assault cases
CLEVELAND, Ohio — More than two years ago, Cleveland police started an ambitious project to account for thousands of pieces of evidence in sexual assault cases going back at least 20 years.
In doing so, they join a growing number of cities across America that are testing old evidence that has the potential to solve cold cases and offer some solace for victims, even in cases that can't be prosecuted.
Cities began testing sex-crimes evidence in recent years at the urging of victims and advocates who were disturbed that law enforcement officials were encouraging victims to undergo highly invasive exams only to leave the results on property-room shelves.
The challenge comes not only from figuring out how best to deal with the thousands of boxes of evidence -- commonly called sexual-assault or rape kits -- and the new leads they may yield, but also how to approach victims about devastating crimes that happened long ago.
The evidence -- bodily fluids, hair, fingernails, even clothing -- is collected from victims who report sexual assaults in the hopes it could help identify an attacker, corroborate testimony about an attack or connect the perpetrator to other crimes.
For years, kits were only sporadically sent for testing by police departments who, at the time, may not have understood the scope of information the kits could yield and who dealt with overworked labs that would not always accept them.
In Cleveland, more than 3,700 of 6,184 kits going back to 1991 had not been tested as of 2009. In a decision left largely up to detectives, evidence often was not sent in cases in which victims declined to prosecute, there were no leads or there wasn't going to be a trial.
DNA testing has become more affordable and efficient, departments across the country are trying to figure out how best to use the evidence to identify serial rapists -- and sometimes solve years-old cases.
Some cities, such as New York, have tested every kit they had in storage. Others have sorted through the evidence and sent only certain kits, perhaps excluding closed cases, cases that were too old to be prosecuted or cases in which victims could not be reached.
Detroit is using a small portion of its more than 8,000 untested kits for federally funded research to figure out why they weren't originally tested and how to make the system better for victims. In Cleveland, where Police Chief Michael McGrath ordered that all new evidence -- more than 300 kits a year -- be sent to a state or county lab for testing, officers took two years to sort through the stored evidence kits.
Now, Cleveland is sending off the untested kits in batches of 25, starting with the oldest. Officials have promised to eventually test all kits, regardless of whether the cases will be prosecutable.
In December, after Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine hired additional lab technicians to test older kits, the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation received more than 400 kits from across the state. More than half came from Cleveland or other Cuyahoga County departments.
Results from the tested kits have started to trickle in.
Of the 170 older kits Cleveland police had tested last year, they have gotten lab results back in 36 cases, according to Lt. James McPike, who oversees the city's Special Victims Section. Eleven kits yielded DNA, and when entered into a national database, 10 matched a person whose DNA already existed there and who was the original suspect.
Though a DNA match doesn't solve a crime, each case that gets a hit in the database is assigned to a sex crimes detective for further investigation.
New York prosecutors help victims find closure
Cleveland may be able to learn from New York City, where law enforcement and prosecutors went down a similar road more than a decade ago -- though on a larger scale.
In 1999, New York identified more than 17,000 mostly untested sexual-assault evidence kits in storage throughout the city. Officials there opted for the "forklift approach," loading all the kits into trucks and hauling them off to private labs for testing. It cost $12 million.
When testing was complete, hundreds of matches emerged with new leads in old cases.
How cities deal with backlog
Cities nationwide have struggled in recent years with evidence collected years ago in hundreds of thousands of sex crimes that may be helpful in identifying serial rapists.
New York: Nearly 17,000 sexual assault evidence kits were identified as mostly untested in 1999. A private lab was paid $12 million to test them. The city now tests every kit connected to a report and credits that policy with boosting the arrest rate in rape cases to 70 percent and increased numbers of rape convictions.
Los Angeles: In 2008, the city identified 6,132 untested kits going back at least a decade. (Los Angeles County jurisdictions had about another 6,000.) Using federal grant money and private donations, the city's evidence was tested. Up to 1,000 matches were made, though many of those identified were already incarcerated, and about 300 were arrested, according to news reports.
Detroit: More than 11,304 sexual assault kits were discovered mostly untested in a shuttered crime lab in 2010. About 2,300 had lab numbers, indicating some had been tested, while 8,505 had not. Using a federal grant, a team of law enforcement officials, prosecutors and victims -- led by a Michigan State University researcher -- randomly chose 400 to be tested and tracked to figure out the best way to handle evidence testing in sex crimes cases.
New Orleans: In 2010, a police official identified more than 800 untested kits dating back to the 1980s. The department's undertaking was made more difficult because a lab and evidence storage room were flooded during Hurricane Katrina. West Virginia's Marshall University Forensic Science Center recently finished testing the kits, and DNA extracted from samples will soon be entered into nationally linked databases. However, New Orleans detectives also have hundreds of previously made matches between the sex crimes evidence and DNA databases that still need to be investigated.
Many were previously deemed hard to investigate because they involved sex workers and drug addicts -- victims who were less likely to be believed or to participate in the court system. The DNA matches showed patterns in the attacks that strengthened their cases. "A lot of victims of serial offenders are very vulnerable people, because they are working in the sex industry or because they are addicted to drugs," said Martha Bashford, a New York assistant district attorney who heads the sex crimes unit.
For a decade, she and fellow prosecutor Melissa Mourges did nothing but prosecute cold-case sexual-assault cases in Manhattan. Prosecutions in just that borough of the city resulted in more than 900 years in prison for rapists -- the pair had a 100 percent conviction rate even though many of the cases went to trial.
Bashford said one of the lessons she learned was that the cases actually became stronger over time than they might have been at the time they were reported.
She said the victims were often stronger, and offenders' arguments that sex was consensual or that a rape report resulted from a beef or payment or drugs fell apart years later, especially with the DNA evidence.
Bashford said she watched the defendants' faces as victims walked into the courtroom. She could see that they recognized them years later.
"They thought they'd gotten away with it," she said.
Bashford said they linked cases involving limousine and taxi drivers and people who preyed on women in bars. They found that the same men had raped acquaintances and strangers alike.
The DNA results even exonerated one man who had served 10 1/2 years in prison on charges he'd raped a 17-year-old. The evidence in that case probably would not have been included had the city filtered its backlog and sorted out closed cases.
The real attacker was serving a life sentence for other robberies and rapes.
New York was unable to prosecute the majority of the cases because the state's statute of limitations was only six years at the time. It has since been expanded. Ohio's current statute of limitations in felony sexual assault cases is 20 years, but cases have to be prosecuted depending on the law at the time of the attack.
The New York project showed even those cases that could not be prosecuted were still meaningful.
In cases where hits linked to people already in prison, victims were able to write letters to parole boards and urge that their attacker not be released. In other cases, victims gave statements when their attackers were sentenced for other rapes they committed years later.
Sometimes police were simply able to tell women who their attacker was or if the person was dead.
Bashford said that of more than 250 cases the prosecutors worked, only in 30 cases did the victim decline to prosecute -- far fewer than in typical sexual assault prosecutions.
"What we heard over and over and over again was that 'I thought I was the only one that remembered what happened to me,' " she said.
When possible, Bashford said, they contacted people in person or by telephone (without leaving messages). In some cases, they sent very nonspecific letters to addresses asking people who lived there in the year of the offense to contact their office.
Collaboration among authorities is crucial
The importance of how victims are contacted and presented with information about a traumatic experience long ago cannot be overlooked, experts say.
Ilse Knecht, deputy director of public policy at the National Center for Victims of Crime, has been working with victims whose sexual-assault evidence was belatedly tested to understand what the process was like. The center soon will be offering training and resources for departments tackling their kit testing.
Departments have handled the process in many ways, she said. Some have opted for in-person or phone notification. In Dallas, a general notice that older kits were being tested was publicized and victims were encouraged to call with questions or to get information.
Knecht said collaboration among investigators, prosecutors and advocates is key to approaching these victims. And the team needs to be trained that victims' reactions will vary -- from anger to gratitude.
Some would rather have information about their attackers than to not know. Others might not want any information because they don't want to relive the experience.
"We don't need to be paternalistic. We need to give victims choices," Knecht said. "The process for victims is sometimes more important than the outcome."
So far, Cleveland detectives have been contacting victims in person and only if information from their tested evidence generates a new lead or a suspect has been identified or verified.
When detectives contact them, they are given information on how to get support or counseling.
"We need to remember that getting a knock on your door about a rape that happened many years back can open up significant wounds for someone who has tried to move beyond that trauma," said Megan O'Bryan, president and chief executive officer of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, which now contacts every person who reports a new sex crime to police.
Sarah Tofte, a former researcher for Human Rights Watch who in 2009 reported on more than 12,000 untested rape kits in Los Angeles city and county, commends cities like Cleveland that committed to testing past and future evidence in sex-crimes cases.
Tofte, who now directs policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which seeks to educate and empower survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, said that sitting on the evidence for so long gave the message to victims that their cases weren't important.
She also said that testing the rape kits not only will show victims that they are taken seriously, but also could have further benefits.
"I have yet to see a jurisdiction that has just tested kits," she said. "They have all also done some soul searching about how they approach these cases."