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.
Categories: ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, law & order, Science, violence
For a country that seems to value “rule of law” so highly they don’t seem to be very enthusiastic about funding the system so they law can actually be enforced. The backlog of testing rape kits seems to be part of a wider problem – in general there’s a huge DNA testing backlog:
Makes me kind of wonder what their unsolved crime rate is like?
Makes me wonder whether it’s related to the same sort of security theatre they started up at airports after 9/11 – so much of it does nothing, but it’s there to look like they’re doing something useful/productive.
Then while they’re scrabbling for funding for these backlogs, and other crucial public services, they’re arguing about how totally impossible it is for taxes to be higher.
I don’t know about a security theater, but I do suspect it might have something to do with the fact that many aspects of our criminal justice are privatized. Halliburton and their cronies run the concessions for a good many of our prisons in California. I wouldn’t doubt they have their hands in this too.
This rape kit business is a travesty. Thank you for bringing it to my attention.
I find the rape kit issue an interesting one, since there’s a common complaint that the reason for low convictions in rape cases is that it “all comes down to a case of he-said-she-said” and then the tendency is to let the defendant go free because “it’s better to let a hundred guilty men go free than to jail one innocent”. But rape kits provide hard evidence that’s harder to wiggle out of. You can’t as believably claim that you weren’t there, for instance, and if you’ve shown up in multiple rape kits, it’s probably less likely that all those women “just regretted” having consensual sex. Basically, it’s the kind of evidence that police, juries and society claim they like, so why not process it? Because it’s expensive? Or because they really don’t want to improve the arrest/conviction rate?
Nitpicking: the point of “he-said-she-said” is not so much “I wasn’t there/yes he was” as it is “it was consensual/no it wasn’t” – on individual cases DNA doesn’t help for that. However, as you note, when the same DNA turns up in multiple raple kits, then it absolutely is “, and that is IMO an argument that juries would respond to.
Mai’s point about the privatisation rampant in the US I find disturbingly persuasive. There’s a strong motive for both cost-cutting and no upsetting of the status quo there. The security theatre similarities (“we ensure that evidence is taken so carefully!”) are just part of how it’s all spun to the media.
We’re lucky in Australia that privatisation of the criminal justice system is thus far limited only to the incarceration venues. That’s bad enough, the idea of privatisation of forensic procedures sends a nasty cold chill down my spine.
Cost-cutting is especially plausible in light of the numerous cases of state or local governments requiring women to pay for their own (which I believe is unique among US criminal investigation procedures).
IANAL but that’s unlikely to be something that the juries would be allowed to be told though is it? As each case would need to be tried separately.
I think in general that the DNA evidence would be used as a tool by investigators to include/exclude possible suspects, especially useful for the former where the offender is unknown. You obviously don’t need DNA in cases were the issue is one of consent and you know the identities of who is involved.
I think there’s a role for multiple private forensic laboratories (in addition to a public one) that can handle procedures required for criminal cases. We would be more vulnerable to corruption for example with only one organisation. This looks to me like an issue about providing adequate funding, not a public/private one.
Late comment is late …
Short answer: not necessarily/it depends.
Longer answer (keep reading at your peril of nerdery!): It is always possible, theoretically, to combine offences on the one indictment.
This is most likely to happen where the offences arise out of the same event or series of events (eg you are in a fight; someone is killed and a bunch of other people injured; you are tried on the one indictment for murder or manslaughter, affray, two counts of assault occasioning grievous bodily harm and three counts of common assault).
Where offences are charged on the one indictment but do NOT arise out of the same event or series of events, the accused can argue that it would cause prejudice to her or him for exactly the reasons you are suggesting – ie it sounds pretty bad and might make the jury think “GUILTY!” without properly considering the evidence. The parties would then have a pre-trial argument about this (with a judge but NO jury) and the judge will decide whether or not the offences should be tried together or separately.
In favour of keeping the offences together, the prosecution can argue that the evidence for each offence would be admissible in relation to each other offence.
One (pair of) reason(s) why evidence for an offence might be admissible in relation to another offence is where you can say either that the evidence rationally suggests that the accused has a tendency to do certain acts OR that the evidence rationally suggests that these things all happening in the way they did must be more than a coincidence.
The “probably less likely that all those women “just regretted” having consensual sex” reasoning is the quintessential example of coincidence reasoning.
For tendency, you have to be able to point to specific similarities in the way the offences occurred AND be able to eliminate the possibility of collaboration between witnesses/victims. An example from a real case (can’t remember the name) which is pretty striking: the offender wore a Native American-style headdress while committing the crime (that is something that could go through coincidence reasoning, too). Other examples: use of a particular drug, say, or taking victims to a particular place or type of place.
Because of the potential for evidence like this to be prejudicial (ie the effect of “Look at all these things the accused is charged with! She/he MUST be guilty of something!”), there is a pretty high threshold. However, it is pretty common for sexual offences which are apparently unconnected, other than the same person being charged, to be included on the one indictment. I think this is due to a combination of factors: sexual offenders often commit more than one offence; sexual offenders often commit more than one offence against the same person; sexual offenders who commit multiple offences often have similar MOs across their offences; AND it helps to eliminate the he said/she said difficulties so the Crown is more likely to really push to get this kind of evidence in (which they could seek to do even if the offences were included on separate indictments).