Joyful Heart in the News

No Longer Ignored, Evidence Solves Rape Cases Years Later

August 2, 2014
The New York Times
Erik Eckholm

MEMPHIS — Meaghan Ybos was 16 and had just arrived home from school when a man in a ski mask held a knife to her throat and raped her.

The man said he would kill her if she called the police, but she did so anyway. That led to barrages of skeptical questions, Ms. Ybos said, and the excruciating collection of evidence from her body, gathered into what is commonly known as a rape kit.

“I felt so vulnerable being laid out on a table, with all my clothes off and in a bag and all the swabs and brushes and combs,” she recalled. But at least, she figured, the police would use the swabs and hair samples to help catch the rapist.

They did not. Like hundreds of thousands of other rape kits across the country containing evidence gathered from victims, that of Ms. Ybos lay untested for years on a storeroom shelf.

The reasons for the backlog, experts say, include constraints on finances and testing facilities, along with a slow recognition among investigators that even when the offender is known, DNA testing might reveal a pattern of serial rapes. And too often, women’s advocates say, the kits went untested because of an uncaring and haphazard response to sexual assault charges.


The stacked-up kits are “more than pieces of evidence,” Mr. Wharton told reporters; each one represents a victim hoping for justice. He formed a task force of police officials, prosecutors and community advocates that meets twice a month to oversee the process and make monthly public reports.

Over the last decade, reports of large rape-kit backlogs have surfaced, often after investigations by news reporters or advocacy groups. But because many cities have resisted looking too hard or have even destroyed untested kits over time, the extent of the problem is unknown, said Sarah Tofte, director of policy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York group that aids victims of sexual assault and is now advising Detroit and Memphis.


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