Ten thousand rape kits tested. One hundred twenty-seven convictions won, 1,947 cases investigated, 817 serial rapists identified.
It’s been a long eight years for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.
In 2009, 11,341 untested sexual assault kits — the results of an hours-long process that collects evidence from the body of a rape victim — were found during a routine tour of a Detroit police storage warehouse, some dating back to 1984. Worthy and her team started the long and laborious process of testing those kits, investigating the crimes, and prosecuting the perpetrators — and launching Enough SAID, an effort to raise the money to complete the work. It’s a reversal of a decades-long miscarriage of justice. This month, Worthy spoke to the Free Press about the work done thus far — and the long road ahead.
Q: One of the most astounding findings here is that you’ve identified 817 serial rapists. That’s 817 people who attacked more than one person — and crimes that could possibly have been prevented if those people had been caught.
A: This is how I try to put it in context for people: There are estimated to be 400,000 untested rape kits in the country. In one city, in one county, in one state, we had 11,341. That means a couple of things: Number one, this problem is a lot more pervasive than people could ever have imagined. Number two, (that’s) on top of the very low rate that people report in the first place. That means there is much more sexual assault going on, that it’s much more pervasive than people think. I think nationally the number is about 20% of rapes that are reported, and when you get to the prosecution stage it’s very, very little … that’s very sobering, very sad and very pathetic.
Q: In terms of the 817 identified serial rapists who strike between 10 and 15 times —
A: A rapist rapes on average seven to 11 times before they’re caught. … Of our set of 817 … over 50 of them have 10 to 15 hits apiece.
Q: So how should that inform law enforcement, prosecutors’ understanding of how to prevent, investigate, prosecute these crimes?
A: I’m not sure that I have an answer to that. All I can say from my perspective, even if that wasn’t true, we should take these cases seriously.
Q: Testing kits, identifying perpetrators and prosecuting them is part of the work. But you’re also working hard to change the system, to ensure that this can’t happen again.
A: We had to do a number of things … when we first started, we knew we didn’t want to be in this place five, 10 years down the road. I don’t anticipate we’re going to be done with these cases — investigating, prosecuting — for another three years or so.
There has be a (sexual assault kit) protocol, and there is now in the Detroit Police Department … Police officers do not make that decision, they just all go.
We started off with an 18-month pilot program with UPS. We knew that if you could track a package, when you order something online, you ought to be able to track a rape kit in your own state.
Legislation that was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 … created … standards for when kits get to the lab — 14 days to take it to the lab and 90 days to turn it around, assuming lab has the resources. And that’s statewide.
The other huge change that we made here in Wayne County … is the training. Training officers on how you’re supposed to treat victims … about the neurobiology of trauma. When a potential victim comes into the police department and is laughing or has a flat affect, it doesn’t mean they weren’t raped. We reviewed many many police reports where the officers dismissed (victims) because they didn’t act the way they thought they should act.
Q: All the things you were talking about, the better tracking system, the new guidelines for when rape kits get tested … in the National Institute of Justice report on the backlog (by Michigan State University Professor Rebecca Campbell), the big takeaway there was that too often, officers didn’t believe victims, and had used disbelief as a way to triage their workload.
A: They just closed cases, even cases where I think they believed the victim … They closed cases because the women had worked as prostitutes or had mental illness issues or had substance abuse. Didn’t believe them, didn’t care, and this was one issue that led to the backlog of these kits.
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