No More Cold Cases

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by Charlotte Alter,

from TIME Magazine,

One prosecutor takes on 11,000 unsolved rapes.

On a warm June day in 2006, a man approached a 27-year-old deaf woman at a Detroit bus stop. Impersonating a police officer, he displayed a fake siren and offered her a ride home. When she got in the car, he pulled her into the backseat. Then he raped her.

Unlike most sexual-assault victims in the U.S., the woman reported the attack. She allowed doctors to probe and photograph her body to collect DNA samples from anywhere the rapist might have left a trace of skin, hair or semen. The swabs, images and other evidence were packed into a white cardboard kit the size of a child’s shoebox. Then the kit was left in a police evidence room, where it sat untouched for six years. When the kit was finally sent to a lab in 2012, her rapist’s DNA was linked to four other reported rapes.

That long-lost kit was no fluke. In 2009, Detroit Assistant Prosecutor Robert Spada found more than 11,000 rape kits in an abandoned police warehouse in Detroit. Some had been there for 30 years, long past the statute of limitations on prosecution. Each kit represented a victim whose case never made it to trial: a 12-year-old boy kidnapped at a gas station; a pair of girlfriends returning from a family party; a 36-year-old woman found beaten to death with a brick after she was raped. “Not much shocks me anymore, but that was shocking to me,” says Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy of the backlog. “These are potentially 11,000 victims, and we should bring them justice if we possibly can.”

Since the discovery, Worthy, 56, has been at the forefront of a national push to test backlogged rape kits and investigate and prosecute cold cases. This might seem like a futile task in a debt-ridden city that has been known as the “murder capital of America.” But Worthy is no ordinary prosecutor. In 2004, she became the first woman and the first African American to hold the job, and just four years later she charged the city’s then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick with eight felonies, which led to his resignation and eventual imprisonment.

Rape investigations were clearly not a top priority for local law-enforcement officials. “The police at the time felt it was perfectly natural for them to write totally derogatory things in the police file about the victim,” Worthy says. One 2006 police report about a 14-year-old who claimed she was raped in an abandoned house read: “This heffer is trippin … she was clean and smellin good, ain’t no way that sh-t happen like she said. She knew her mama was gon be looking fo her cause she was pose to be home at 7 … the jig was up.”

By contrast, Worthy assembled a special team to work on the cold cases, but she could afford only one full-time investigator and two full-time assistant prosecutors dedicated to the backlog. Worthy and her team personally cross-referenced the kits with police reports in order to match each one to an old, incomplete investigation.

If there is a match, Worthy and her team decide how to prioritize the investigation.

If prosecutors decide to move forward, Detroit police detective Anne Kanitra notifies the victim that authorities are reopening her case. This can be traumatizing as well; years after a rape, victims often have no desire to relive the nightmare, much less go through a lengthy and difficult prosecution. “We want to give [victims] an out if they didn’t tell their families,” Kanitra says. “We don’t want the whole family asking, ‘Why are the police here? Why are they talking to you?’”

But if they agree, and they usually do, Kanitra works with victims to gather additional evidence to corroborate their stories, which often involves digging through old police files and tracking down witnesses who may have moved to other states. Once they collect enough evidence, Worthy’s team of assistant prosecutors bring the case to trial.

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