The science of stopping sex crimes

In the quest to catch violent perps, rape kits can be a key ally – but only if they're tested.

In November 1996, an 82-year-old Minneapolis woman was raped in an alley as she walked her dog on Aldrich Avenue.

The DNA specimen from the crime was too small to be tested with technology available in 1996. But when the Hennepin County Attorney's Office used a federal grant in 2009-10 to review a backlog of almost 10,000 cold cases, the specimen was finally analyzed.

Because advances in technology now make it possible to test even miniscule DNA samples, there was a hit linking the DNA to Kevin Haynes, who was serving time on a Wisconsin rape conviction. A few weeks ago he was charged with the 1996 rape. The victim died before her alleged assailant was identified.

The Haynes cold case is among 26 charges or convictions resulting from DNA testing made possible by the federal cold-case grant, and more remain under investigation.

Communities across the nation are under growing pressure to test a backlog of hundreds of thousands of rape kits — semen and other evidence collected from victims — that have languished for years.

Rape kit testing can identify serial rapists and unknown assailants as well as exonerate innocent suspects. The fact that so many DNA samples have sat on shelves in evidence rooms for years sends negative messages to victims and encourages culprits, says Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which presses for rape kit testing.

"The message to survivors is: 'Your case doesn't matter,'" Tofte says, and the signal to offenders is, "Don't worry, this is an easy crime to get away with."

COPS ARE TOO OFTEN unwilling to devote their time and energy to alleged rapes.

They are insensitive to victims and presume — still — that they somehow invited the sexual assault.

Investigators yield to internal pressures to pursue the latest headline-grabbing crime instead of sticking with rape inquiries that can involve considerable legwork, unreliable witnesses, and shifting stories.

And those rape kit test results, though the state crime lab now usually processes them in about 30 days, sometimes sit for weeks or months on the desks of cops and prosecutors.

The surprise: These critiques are from people inside the criminal justice system.

Steve Redding, a senior assistant Hennepin County attorney in charge of sex crime prosecutions, says there's a "deeply ingrained attitude" among some police that cold cases involving rape are not a high priority.

When he helps train cops to use DNA evidence to bust open cold cases and snag serial rapists, he tells them, "You've got the best evidence in the world here.... You shouldn't be putting that one on the back burner."

Nancy Dunlap, who until her retirement in March headed the Minneapolis Police Department's sex crimes unit, shares Redding's frustrations.

Inadequate training, lack of sensitivity, and stingy resources mean predators are getting away with rape, often targeting the most vulnerable women — substance abusers, the homeless, sex workers — because the perpetrators assume nobody cares enough to solve the crimes.

"A lot of people have a difficult time working with rape victims because of their own biases," Dunlap says. "They're uncomfortable with it."

Amanda Richards is director of mental health for the Minneapolis Neighborhood Involvement Program, which operates the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center. She says the "rape culture" continues to skew society's view of the crime.

"There's still an attitude that women are asking to be raped by what they wear, what they do, that somehow they deserve it," she says. "The belief is that men are not responsible for their behavior."

MORE THAN HALF of rape victims never tell police what happened to them, making it one of the most under-reported crimes.

The FBI says 83,425 forcible rapes were reported to law enforcement nationally in 2011. Justice Department statistics show that of every 100 rapes nationally, 46 are reported to law enforcement. In 2011, the national arrest rate for rape was 24 percent.

The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault says one in seven women in the state report being sexually assaulted at some point. FBI data show that there were 426 reported rapes in Minneapolis in 2012.

The untested rape kit issue has become an expression of outrage about the ways rape victims are treated and judged.

When City Council members in Memphis, Tennessee, learned in August that its backlog of untested rape kits totaled about 10,000, they were furious.

"I will raise taxes to get this taken care of," said Councilman Shea Flinn. "This is outrageous."

Detroit's 11,304 untested rape kits have been in a police warehouse for as long as two decades. The Detroit Crime Commission and Wayne County prosecutor are collecting donations for the $15 million needed to test the kits and investigate and prosecute the cases. The Michigan Legislature approved spending $4 million on the project.

It can cost $1,200 to $1,500 to test each kit.

Fort Worth, Texas, is seeking grants from foundations to test its backlog of 1,080 rape kits. Texas has about 20,000 rape kits waiting to be processed; lawmakers there recently appropriated $10.8 million — enough to cover testing of half of them.

Some big cities have erased their backlogs. After New York City completed testing of 17,000 kits in 2003, the arrest rate for rape rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. More than 200 cold cases were prosecuted. Los Angeles County wrapped up tests of a 12,500-kit backlog in 2011.

Only three states — Illinois, Texas, and Colorado — have enacted legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to provide an inventory of untested kit backlogs and then submit them for testing. Colorado is now debating a bill that would require the testing of all rape kits.

Tofte says similar measures could soon be considered in California, Ohio, and Michigan. Providing money to pay for testing is key to the success of such measures, she says. "One-time grants ... aren't always the best way."

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have included $117 million for DNA backlog reduction grants in 2014 spending bills; September 30 is the deadline for action by both chambers.

Legislation that would have appropriated the same amount of money to address the national backlog died in Congress in 2012.

IN MINNESOTA, "there is no state law that affects whether or not a sexual assault kit has to be tested," Redding says.

That leaves the issue in the hands of local jurisdictions.

DNA is collected from all convicted felons in Minnesota, he says, and from those charged with felonies but not convicted of any crime.

The rape kit backlog here was fueled by the same attitudes that make the crime a low priority for some in law enforcement now.

In sexual assault cases, Redding says, police officers sometimes conclude that victims will "make a lousy witness" because of their lifestyle, drug or alcohol abuse, or mental health problems.

"If they bothered to go find her after she makes a report," he says, "they would try to make contact, sometimes vigorously but often half-heartedly."

One thing has changed, he says: More women are visiting hospital emergency rooms after being raped and choosing to allow the collection of DNA samples.

The process can take hours. DNA left in or on a rape victim's body is searched for painstakingly and placed in sealed envelopes or boxes.

In 1977, Dr. Linda Ledray of the Minneapolis-based Sexual Assault Resource Service developed the concept of hospital-based Sexual Assault Response Teams and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners to conduct post-rape exams and contact police if victims want them to do so.

The organization trains nurses, provides workshops for legal advocates and law enforcement, and helps communities across the country implement the programs.

Ledray says Minneapolis has made "incredible strides" in focusing on the needs of rape victims. She commends the police department for "having a sex crimes department and keeping it adequately staffed."

When rape victims come to hospitals, she says, "about a third initially do not want" to have DNA evidence collected, but ultimately most agree.

"The issue," she says, "is the ones we don't even get to come to the hospital."

And once victims do seek medical care, Ledray says, too often there's no trained professional to guide them through the process.

"There are only about 700 SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) programs throughout the U.S.," she says.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension conducts DNA testing on rape kits and has been improving its turnaround time.

In 2006, 621 tests were done in an average of 51 days. Last year, the average turnaround time was 33 days for the 857 rape kits it received.

epin County received a two-year $494,433 grant from the Justice Department to research cold cases with DNA.

It reviewed evidence from two sources. The first group was 1,870 cases submitted for DNA testing to state labs or the Hennepin County sheriff's crime lab from 1991 to 2006.

Some of those cases were cold hits that had never been investigated or submitted for prosecution. Others were cases where a DNA profile had been developed but never matched to a convicted offender. The third category was cases where evidence samples had been submitted but never tested.

The other source of cases pursued under the grant came from a year-by-year review of all reported sexual assaults in Minneapolis from 1991 through 2007.

The thinking was that analyzing every assault would result in the best shot at solving cases with DNA testing and the process focused on cases where testing had never been done.

In all, 9,347 sexual assault cases were reviewed. Of those, 988 were identified as appropriate for DNA testing and ultimately, 574 rape kits were sent to private labs for testing.

The findings:

  • 192 rape kits contained no semen or insufficient amounts of semen for testing.
  • 334 DNA profiles produced no hits in databases of convicted offenders.
  • 195 produced hits, 155 of them to convicted offenders.

Redding says those 155 links to offenders "speak volumes about recidivism." In many cases, he says, the offender had been convicted of auto theft or some other crime, but other cases against the same individual had been declined for prosecution.

"So what happened was that the new case was charged based on the hit, and the old case, which had previously been turned down, was also charged — the new case gave it new credibility."

Dunlap remembers thinking at the beginning of the process that it probably didn't make sense to test every kit in the backlog. She changed her mind.

"The more we looked at it, the more we agreed that every single kit should be tested with rare exception," she says.

In some cases, DNA testing helped solve robberies, homicides, and other crimes.

"There have been a few of these cold cases that the DNA came back with a hit on somebody that was about to be released from prison in a couple weeks or a month," she says.

Dunlap recalls one case she helped solve. A Native American woman had been raped at knife- and gun-point, but she had chemical dependency issues and disappeared soon after.

Dunlap found her at a rehab center and the woman told her, "I didn't think anybody cared."

DNA testing hit on a man with a prior history of sexual misconduct, and Dunlap arrested him. He denied committing the rape.

The night before jury selection was to begin, the woman, who had been sober for three months, disappeared again. Dunlap tracked her down in another treatment center and got her to court on time.

When he saw the victim in court, the accused man's attorney immediately entered a guilty plea, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

"They didn't think she was going to show up," Dunlap says.

Shepherding that sort of victim through the process is time-consuming and labor-intensive, she says, but probably necessary to win convictions.

"If you're looking at these predators, someone who is going to continue these types of behaviors," she says, "that's the only way you can do it. It's not always going to work, but it doesn't mean you stop doing it."

The work done three years ago is still paying dividends. In August, Redding says, he obtained a guilty plea for a rape committed several years ago from a man whose DNA was linked to the crime.

Telling the victim her assailant would soon be in prison was "very gratifying," he says.

EVERYONE INVOLVED in rape cases believes the system can be improved.

Richards, the mental health director, says more women investigators are needed.

Advocates for victims are available at hospitals, she says, "but they're not at all the hospitals unless there's a phone call placed."

She also wishes first responders were "more sensitive to the plight of the sexual assault victim."

Too often, Richards says, investigators ask questions that suggest they don't believe a rape occurred: "Are you sure you didn't encourage this?" or "The perpetrator said it was consensual, so how can you convince me it wasn't?"

If an investigator is asking those sorts of questions, she wonders, "then what kind of recommendation are they making" to prosecutors about pursuing the case?

Rape survivors "don't like to be pressured" about whether they want to file charges or allow DNA evidence to be collected, she says. But once they decide to press charges, their impatience with the slow-moving justice system can work against them.

"Generally, victims feel like the squeaky wheel gets the grease," she says, so they feel obliged to call and ask about the status of their case. That assertiveness can be counterproductive, she says: "The challenge then for the victim is if they don't act like a victim, it's a problem for them with the police."

Most important, Richards says, victims need to "find their voice" and be made to feel comfortable talking about what happened to them. "Know your truth; claim your truth," she says.

Ledray, the pioneer in training medical personnel, believes that every level-one trauma center should be required to have a sexual assault nurse examiner available at all times in emergency rooms.

"We have made some incredible progress and I'm hoping that we're coming close to being at that tipping point," she says.

Ledray says it's unfair to expect rape survivors to take the lead in lobbying for policy changes. Most need to cope privately with the fallout of what happened to them, she says, and "only in rare exceptions do they become activists."

Tofte, who has tracked the rape kit issue for years for the Joyful Heart Foundation and, before that, for Human Rights Watch, recommends that the federal government require the tracking of rape kits. She also wants Congress to find a "much more robust funding stream," perhaps from fees or forfeited property, to ensure that DNA testing is done on all kits.

Every large-city police department should have a sex crimes unit, Tofte says. "Who's in charge and who gives the message from the top on down that [rape investigations] are important is a huge deal," she says.

Redding, who has devoted much of his career to prosecuting sex crimes, says training is key.

"There hasn't been, in my opinion, adequate training all around the country for police officers," he says.

Among the lessons that need to be emphasized: ensuring that police officers don't let DNA test results pile up on their desks while they pursue other, more recent crimes.

Prosecutors "still don't fully understand how to develop a DNA case," Redding says. And no one has developed a good system for working backward to build a criminal case after DNA helps identify a perpetrator.

Redding warned in testimony to Congress in 2009 that criminals are increasingly savvy about DNA evidence. One perpetrator who carjacked and raped his victim took her pants with him when he fled.

"I'm taking these for DNA purposes," he told her.

He thought he had taken the only evidence that could connect him to the crime, but he was wrong. When she went to the hospital, the victim told a specially trained nurse that her assailant had used her cell phone.

The nurse swabbed the phone and obtained a sample of the perpetrator's DNA. It was tested and a match was found in the convicted offender database. He was charged with the crime.

Dunlap, the former police lieutenant who, as a consultant, is working to establish national standards for police training in dealing with sex crimes, says law enforcement needs enough personnel and time to investigate cold cases and complex rape investigations.

As it stands now, she says, if a police officer is assigned a cold case on one day and the next day "a high-profile case comes in, the cold case sits."

Dunlap also would like to see more victim advocates from the Somali, Hmong, Latino, and Native American communities who understand the cultural context of the way women react to rape — and can help persuade them to report the crime.

"You'll never know if you have a serial rapist in your neighborhood," she says, "if nobody reports it and nobody has an exam."

Ultimately, Dunlap says, she'd like to see the county attorney or the state legislature mandate that all rape kits are tested. She views the aggressive pursuit of rapists as a way to halt myriad other crimes.

Dunlap says she told police officers who worked for her in the sex crimes unit that "these guys weren't just raping women or children. They were committing robberies, domestic assaults, narcotics violations.

"These guys, they're the bane of your existence out there and if we can put together a good rape case, they're going to go away for big time," she told the officers, who suddenly looked at the issue with fresh eyes. "They got it."

- September 2nd, 2013

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