Prosecutor Kym Worthy has been fighting since 2009 to get this backlog of evidence processed after a colleague discovered they were gathering dust in a warehouse without having even been adequately logged as part of the case reports.
The logging of the kits alone has been a staggering project. “There were no police reports attached to the kits,” she says, explaining that her colleagues “literally had to dust them off” and “physically go through and open them to get the name of the victim, the date that it happened.” A federal grant for $1 million—the first of two such grants of its kind, with the other going to Houston—has helped her get all the kits logged, she says, but the grant won’t cover the DNA testing of all 11,303 kits. “Unfortunately money’s not falling from the sky,” she says.
It took a press leak for the Detroit police brass to take action on Worthy’s complaints about the untested rape kits, despite there having been many similar backlog stories causing major public outrage in many other US cities over the last few years.
Twenty of the 21 serial rapists were identified from the first 153 rape kits officially tested for DNA and entered into the national database known as CODIS, or the Combined DNA Index System, this summer. In other words, these 20 men had been involved in at least one other rape case, according to the database. The twenty-first serial rapist was identified from earlier tests on a random sampling of kits, conducted in order to do a broader statistical analysis of the project.
In one especially horrific case, Worthy says, a convicted rapist named Shelly Andre Brooks had raped and murdered five women after raping a woman whose kit was just recently entered into the database through Worthy’s initiative. If that rape kit had been tested and entered into the database sooner, the man could have been caught sooner—and five women’s lives could have been saved. “That’s why it’s so horrible, this whole thing,” Worthy says.
There’s also another 38 matches to CODIS amongst those 153 tested kits which now offer new avenues for investigators to pursue.
Experts estimate that well over 100,000 rape kits have been warehoused around the USA with no schedule in place for testing them. It strikes me that this widespread dereliction of adequate forensic procedure is a special institutional/politicised case of the Bystander Effect, where “everybody knows” that the rape kits are part of the initial processing of the crime victim, yet ensuring their processing is always somebody else’s responsibility, and “somehow” a system of accountability is never even initiated, let alone adequately monitored. The work of Levine and Crowther (2008) would also indicate that the gender distribution of the male-majority police force bystanders contrasted against the female-majority of the victims, plus the social category division between LEOs and civilians, would be likely to exacerbate the intervention-inhibiting perception of diffused responsibility i.e. Somebody Else’s Problem.
Here in Australia I can find no news stories about rape kit backlogs, but a fair few success stories where cold case evidence kits have been gradually processed since the establishment of our National Criminal Investigation DNA Database (NCIDD) in 2001, with multiple incidents of cold case DNA samples matching with the DNA on record of offenders arrested for other crimes more recently. I suspect that our traditions of state-wide police forces with career-bureaucrat oversight rather than city/municipal police forces with elected-official oversight has led to a more rigorously consistent approach to the handling and storage of evidence, but I wouldn’t want to get overly complacent about that.
Levine, Mark; Crowther, Simon (2008). “The Responsive Bystander: How Social Group Membership and Group Size Can Encourage as Well as Inhibit Bystander Intervention.”. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 95 (6): 1429–1439.