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Content Note: This article discusses rape and rape culture.
In 2009, a Detroit prosecutor discovered something horrifying: there was a backlog of untested rape kits in a warehouse, some dating all the way back to the 1980s. After records were checked, it turned out that there were more than 11,000 (11,303, to be exact) untested rape kits in Detroit, many of which could have been used to identify and lock up rapists who later attacked again. Kym Worthy, the Wayne County prosecutor who discovered the backlog of rape kits, has been fighting to keep the issue in the media and to obtain funding for testing the kits. Her office is also prosecuting individuals identified by the tests after investigations are completed. She’s convicted 14 assailants with the kit results so far.
In response to this issue, the state of Michigan allocated $4 million to test these kits.Unsurprisingly, as kits were tested, many results matched the DNA of already registered sex offenders, with at least 188 perpetrators that have been identified so far having gone on to be identified as serial rapists. One positive identification from an old test matched a man, Shelly Brooks, who went on to rape and murder at least five women in the years while a test that would have implicated him was sitting untested.
Why would the state forget about important evidence to a violent crime? Even if testing a kit costs over $1,000, as the state claims, it should be prioritized over other law enforcement expenditures, as getting rapists off the street has a direct impact on the safety of women citizens.
When a similar situation was exposed in Memphis, Tennessee, some of the victims whose cases were not prosecuted filed a lawsuit. Other states and cities have also gone public about smaller backlogs, which have since been getting tested. According to The Joyful Heart Foundation, who advocate for the end of sexual assault and domestic abuse, indicated to the BBC that many of the kits in the less-egregiously out-of-compliance jurisdictions are not tested because the assailant is already identified by the victim, and the issue is one of consent, not knowing who the attacker was. In other words, police seem to think that rape kits are only worth testing if they are investigating one of relatively rare cases of stranger rape, because there tends to be a lot of disbelieving the victims going on at the police investigation level.
How skewed and broken is our country’s criminal justice system, when for decades, our politicians and law enforcement have prioritized the harassment and arrest of cannabis users while allowing an untold number of rapists to roam the streets, free to attack again? We live in a country where a single, drug-addicted informant can convince police to raid a home over drugs with small children (and no drug dealer) present, but a woman’s word and a medical exam are not enough to convince them to actually investigate and prosecute a violent, terrible crime. Hopefully, the attention this issue is now commanding and the horrifying results of these tests (specifically, the number of assailants who could have been prevented from attacking another human) will keep prosecutorial and law enforcement priorities focused on real crimes with real victims.
The Joyful Heart Foundation can be followed on Facebook, for those hoping for regular updates on the situation in Detroit and other areas with rape kit backlogs.
Photo Credit: Randy under (CC BY-SA 2.0) via Flickr