Interview with Rick Bell: Pt. 2

Several years ago, law enforcement in Cleveland discovered nearly 4,000 untested rape kits, dating from 1993. By 2014, every kit had been submitted for testing in accordance with Ohio’s Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative, and the testing of the first 2,326 kits yielded stunning results: 968 matches in the CODIS national DNA database, 324 investigations, and 204 criminal indictments. This week, we pick back up with Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office Special Investigations Division Chief Rick Bell to hear his reaction to these results.

ENDTHEBACKLOG: What has been the most surprising thing you have found as a result of testing all rape kits?

Rick Bell: The most surprising thing, which perhaps we should have maybe realized, is that these kits were matching to each other in the DNA database at a rate that we did not even imagine would happen. Within our project itself, 10 percent of cases of the rape kits that we are now testing are hitting on each other. 32 percent of these offenders have another sexual assault conviction, whether it’s with a rape kit or not. What’s amazing to me is that all of this evidence was right here in front of us, and had the resources been available before, and had the technology especially been available before, a lot of these crimes could have been solved back when they should have been. And it’s just been a goldmine enabling us to take these people off the street.

These people, except for one or two that we’ve identified, all have a criminal record. And they all seem to have been active since the time of the rape for which the kit was collected. There’s no period of inactivity. They’re committing crimes straight through from 1993 to 2014. They’ve just continued to commit crimes. So these people that are rapists—whether they’re stranger rapists or serial rapists—seem to also commit all sorts of other crimes. And it’s a study within itself. So it’s great to say, “OK, we have to take this person off the streets now, because even though it’s 20 years later, it’s actually going to help us stop the crimes that we know he’s going to continue committing.”

ETB: Cuyahoga County recently published an “Economic Harm Study,” in which you examined the perpetrators through the lens of economic harm done to Cuyahoga County residents. Could you tell me more about that process?

RB: One of the things we wanted to do was to try to quantify how much damage these perpetrators were doing to society. In our initial report, four months into the task force, we asked James McNamara, a former FBI agent who was in the Behavioral Analysis Unit, to review what we were doing and to give us an outside perspective, —to research—what kind of crimes are committed by rapists, how often rapists are generally put in prison and whether or not, if we continue prosecuting them, investigating them, charging them, it would help make our community safer.

So Mr. McNamara began by reviewing studies from across the country that showed how often a rapist will attack and how much time a rapist will be out of action while in prison.. He was able to give us a recommendation that it would definitely be worthwhile to go after these old rapists. It wasn’t only, “OK, you’ve brought answers to this victim.” But in addition, you’re actually making your community, your downtown area—the area where these people live—safer. He was able to show us that in his study and report. That made us start to think: besides making our areas safer, how much damage have rapists done economically to victims? We researched whether or not there were any types of studies, like McNamara had found on the economics of crime.

We found  a National Institute of Health study from the late 2000s that created a key of categories: rapes, breaking and enterings, burglaries, robberies—and they were able to do a study of how much negative economic impact there was to each of those victims, both tangible (out of pocket) expenses for the victim, and intangible (further expenses like they couldn’t get a job, or didn’t have day care, or had to go to counseling for a long period of time, or their husbands or children couldn’t get promoted). Based on this data, we were able to look at each type of crime and quantify what the average economic loss was for each category.

We then did a detailed criminal history check of each of the 229 people we had indicted to that point. We included the original rape they committed, which we knew from our research would cost victims $27,000 of tangible, out of pocket expenses. And then added any expenses from other crimes afterwards, and how much those victims would be out of pocket for tangible expenses. Finally, we factored in the intangible expenses to the criminal justice system. Add all of those up together in one spreadsheet that is very massive and very detailed, and we came to the conclusion that there’s $122 million worth of damage to our Cuyahoga County residents from those 229 people.

Of the 229 people indicted, there were 73 John Does [ed note: John Does refers to perpetrators whose identities are not known and for whom a “John Doe” indictment may be issued]. We included those John Does in our study; even though we didn’t know what their subsequent crimes were, we were able to include at least the rape we know they committed, as discovered by a hit on the DNA database.  

In many respects, our data is conservative, because we only included convictions. We did not include prior arrests in our data or how often they might have committed other crimes just by projecting out how often a rapist strikes—just the criminal convictions. So that’s an astounding amount. If we end up indicting 1000 people, as we project, we know that we’re going to have had half a billion dollars of damage over the past 20 years that could have been saved had these people been prosecuted and put away in prison to begin with.

ETB: Very powerful – is Cuyahoga County the first county that has done an economic report like this?

RB: Yes. Other than the NIH survey, I don’t know of anyone else that has quantified crime like this, certainly not with the CODIS project [ed. note: CODIS is an acronym for the Combined DNA Index System]. It’s a lot of work. You have to hire law school students and interns who are able to crunch those numbers and do that detailed work. The reason we think that’s important is because you can then compare that to the measly amount of money that we’re asking to spend on the detectives to investigate the case. So yes, over two years I am going to ask for $1.2 million to make sure I have 30 investigators to work these cases fast. By doing that, we save many more millions of dollars because if we incarcerate these offenders earlier in their careers, they won’t be free to commit other crimes. 

Next week, check back in for the last installment of our interview with Rick. He’ll be sharing about the first ever Sexual Assault Kit Summit, which brought key stakeholders from Cleveland, Detroit and Memphis together to discuss best practices and steps forward to address the rape kit backlog.

- Vivian Long, April 27th, 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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