Interview with Rick Bell: Pt. 1

ENDTHEBACKLOG had the opportunity to interview Rick Bell, the Special Investigations Division Chief in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office. Rick has been with the office for more than 20 years, working in every unit of the Criminal Division before being promoted to Criminal Investigations Division Chief. Rick directs the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force to investigate 4,000 untested rape kits left on property shelves of the Cleveland Police Department. In 1996 and 2005, Rick was awarded the Prosecutor of the Year Award for the State of Ohio. Today, we have Part 1 of his interview.

ENDTHEBACKLOG: Hi Rick, thanks so much for letting us ask you a few questions. To start off, could you tell me about the path that led to you becoming a prosecutor?

Rick Bell: When I was a high schooler, I was mugged on my way home. I thought of that often but never really thought I would be a prosecutor. I went to Kent State University and while I was there, I was a graphic arts student. But all of a sudden I just didn’t like that very much and had to figure out what I was going to do. I took a number of different courses in a number of different fields, including a Criminal Law pre-law class. I got involved in the pre-law club, and then I eventually decided to go to law school. I thought I was going to save the world and become a defense attorney, and that led me to seeking positions right after law school. I became a prosecutor and I loved it because I could do good things—more good things—by representing victims. And if there was a bad case against a defendant that I didn’t believe in, I had the power to dismiss it as well. So one thing led to another. I love it, and I stay here.

ETB: How did you come to be involved in Special Investigations work?

RB: It really came out of the need to create better cases. When we were receiving detectives’ cases from the police departments, often times they weren’t organized in the trial file, so often when you want to win upstairs you have change, organize and create file folders that make up what’s called a trial file.  Sometimes I wouldn’t have certain things in one file that I might have in another file, like medical files or a criminal background check or all the witness statements that I might have in a different case. Because some cases were stronger than others and I wanted all my cases to be solid and substantial, I used to have to call the detectives or cajole them or buy them lunch to get them to give me the stuff I needed in order to make my file better. As a prosecutor, you have to know a little about the law, know a little bit about police work, a little bit about medical work in order to make your cases stronger.

In the early 90s, I was placed in a position where I was able to review every single juvenile rape case and make sure all of the documents were prepared and ready to go. That led to me being detailed to the Department of Children and Family Services, where I would listen in on investigations and interviews of child rape victims. It put me in direct contact with detectives and allowed me to start communicating with them directly—asking them for files to put all my cases together. Just because I wanted to have a good trial file, I eventually learned what was necessary for a detective to do and how they went about doing it. I went on a few ride-alongs with them and learned that I could do some of the work that they did, or could learn how to do it, and it made for a better case. That led to carving out this idea in our office that we should have a division full of prosecutors that are embedded with police agencies, and the police embedded with us.

ETB: Was this the first time that a unit like this existed?

RB: Yes, that I knew of. Back in the early 90s, it was called the Child Protection Coalition; it was a task force of 24 different agencies, 4 hospitals, the many police departments, sheriff’s department, Department of Children and Family Services, Prosecutor, Coroner’s Office and a number of other groups. After all their top people signed off, I was given direct access to expert witnesses which allowed me to create a trial file before the case was even brought to the grand jury. I was no longer interested in receiving a case that had been prepared for me and given to me after the grand jury. I wanted to make sure I was involved and knew all of the witnesses and everything I needed to know before it actually went in to be charged. This also led to the practices we have for all of our Special Investigations—we use the same model of getting to the case before it’s even charged, and reviewing the case with the police. This enables us to send them back out to get whatever evidence they haven’t gotten yet. 

ETB: When did crimes of violence against women come into your field of work?

RB: It started back in the early 90s when I would meet our child victims of both physical and sexual abuse. It would put me in direct contact with their mothers and their grandmothers, and it became apparent to me right away, after 3, 4 or 5 months maybe, that a lot of this abuse was cyclical. We would receive the records from Children and Family Services for the child, including the treatment plan for the child. Along with that would come the whole family plan. In some cases, the family might have been involved with the department for 20 years. You could see how the mother was abused growing up as a child, and the sisters, and the aunts as well. And it became pretty clear that a lot of this history was revisiting itself within the family.

In order to try to stop that abuse from happening, we had to make sure the mothers were given adequate treatment. And a lot of times, the mothers were being abused by their paramours just as the children were—in a lot of cases, the mothers were raped as well. There was one case in particular that was very brutal, it just opened my eyes to the fact that certain men don’t mind who they control. It could be a child that they want to control and beat up or sexually abuse or that child’s mother. One woman in particular was pretty much brainwashed by her husband, and both she and her daughter were being abused by him. That would have been about 1992 or 1993 that it first occurred to me—like a theorem of geometry: it was happening so often that a victim’s mother had also been raped, or physically abused or controlled, that it was almost the norm for the child to be raised that way. A lot of the mothers didn’t know any better or had no hope left.

ETB: How has Ohio’s commitment to testing all untested rape kits impacted your work?

RB: It’s impacted our work because it’s added another close to 100 percent of cases that we will receive. Each year, our office receives maybe 250 – 300 sexual assault cases from the police department. With these DNA hit cases, we are now receiving 700 cases, not only just for review and prosecution, but for investigation as well. It’s been a terrible pull on our resources, which we’ve had to pull from other units. We’ve had to sacrifice our budget -- and perhaps even raises for our prosecutors -- or other personnel that might be used for  other important needs because we are dealing with a backlog here that should have been dealt with years ago. It’s been a burden and a sacrifice, not just for the people involved in working on the cases, but also for everybody else in the office who has had to tighten their belt and work without while we try to address this issue.

Check back Monday for the second installment of our interview. Rick will be telling ENDTHEBACKLOG about what he learned from testing all rape kits in Cuyahoga County tested, and sharing some shocking statistics regarding the true economic harm of the rape kit backlog.

- Vivian Long, April 20th, 2015

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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