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Research project looks to fix problem of untested rape kits

Rebecca Campbell, professor of psychology, and Giannina Fehler-Cabral, graduate research assistant, are looking into why more than 10,000 rape kits in Detroit went untested.
G.L. Kohuth
Michigan State University
Rebecca Campbell, professor of psychology, and Giannina Fehler-Cabral, graduate research assistant, are looking into why more than 10,000 rape kits in Detroit went untested.

About two years ago, police and prosecutors were conducting a walk-through of a Detroit Police storage room when they came across something as shocking as any crime scene: more than 10,000 rape kits, collecting dust.

“You don’t get 10,000-plus kits sitting in a storage facility because one person or one organization didn’t do their job. It just doesn’t work like that. You can’t get a problem that big,” says Michigan State University researcher Rebecca Campbell.

Not just a Detroit problem

Cambell says what happened in Detroit was a wholesale breakdown of many systems. So she’s looking at the policies, staffing and training of the police and prosecutors, the crime lab technicians, victim advocates, and the medical system that treats rape victims. The hope is that her research will help other jurisdictions clear their backlogs.

“There are police storage facilities all throughout the country that have thousands of rape kits just sitting there,” says Campbell.

Detroit’s stash of untested kits might still be unknown if it weren’t for an inspection of the Detroit police crime lab. The lab was shut down because of problems with the way it handled ballistics evidence.

Changes under way

Campbell’s research is expected to yield recommendations to avoid the kinds of problems that resulted in the backlog. But one change that’s already taken place is that Wayne County has embedded a prosecuting attorney in the Detroit Police Department’s sex crimes unit.

“Makes all the difference in the world,” says Detroit Deputy Police Chief Paul Welles. “They’re meeting the complainants almost as we’re meeting complainants, and we can move through these cases, get a more thorough investigation quickly.”

But the reality is that Detroit’s police department has far fewer people working sex cases than it used to. The unit currently has 18 people.  In 1990, it had 60.

“When I came on the job we also had 5,000 people on the street, and now I think the chief said the other day we’re around 2,700,” says Welles. “So every unit is smaller than it once was.”

And the city’s budget troubles could force Detroit to cull its police force even further.

Meanwhile, there’s still the matter of the 10,500 rape kits found in that police evidence room.

A “massive amount of evidence”

An audit of the Detroit kits discovered back in 2009 – also conducted by MSU – found that about 6,000 of those kits should go to the lab for DNA testing. But the state police lab is responsible for processing kits from jurisdictions all over the state. So the Detroit backlog is a major strain on its resources.

“We process 1,500-2,000 kits a year for the entire state,” says lab director John Collins. “So that tells you what we’re talking about in terms of the scope of what we’re dealing with. It’s a massive amount of evidence.”

Collins says a federal grant will pay for the laboratory testing of a portion of the kits, probably about 1,300. He says testing should begin in January.

And when that happens, there will be calls or visits made to women like Natasha Alexenko.

“It’s like oh my gosh, they found him,” she recalls of picking up the phone in 2003 and hearing the New York City DA’s office on the other end of the line. Instead, she learned that nothing had been done with her rape kit since she was assaulted at gunpoint in 1993. Alexenko’s kit was among some 17,000 in New York City that had sat untested for years, just like in Detroit.

“So gosh are you telling me for nine and a half years this kit sat and collected dust and I’d gone through all that and you make the assumption that the police department is doing everything it can to find your assailant, and that’s not the case?” Alexenko says.

But that phone call set into motion a process that did get Alexenko’s kit tested. And four years later, there was a DNA match.

“To put a name on my perpetrator was amazingly empowering,” she says.

The man was convicted in Alexenko’s rape, and he’s currently serving a 25-year minimum sentence at Sing Sing prison in New York. Alexenko now heads a non-profit whose mission is to end the rape kit backlog in cities across the country.

First prosecution set to begin

“For every kit that’s tested, we can solve a lot of assaults,” says Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Mary DuFour Morrow. “We know the vast majority of assailants are serial rapists.”

Wayne County has just charged one man whose DNA matched the genetic material found in one of those rape kits that languished in Detroit for years.

Antonio Jackson is accused of raping a woman at gunpoint in 1997. A preliminary examination is scheduled for December 14.

It’s the first of what could be hundreds of prosecutions using evidence found in Detroit’s rape kit backlog.

To find out more about Natasha Alexenko's work to end rape kit backlogs, click here.

Sarah Hulett is Michigan Public's Director of Amplify & Longform, helping reporters to do their best work.