Opinion: New website may help Wayne County rape victims whose DNA kits sat for decades

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"You still matter. Your case still matters."

That's what Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy wants survivors of sex assault whose rape kits sat untested for decades to know.

All 11,000 of the backlogged rape kits, discovered by an assistant prosecutor from Worthy's office in a Detroit police warehouse in 2009, have now been tested, thanks to Worthy and her team, who raised the money to test each kit and investigate the crimes they represent. They've closed more than 4,800 of these cases, identifying 841 serial offenders and winning 239 convictions, largely without the benefit of public dollars.

But there's more work to do: There are roughly 1,200 kits in which investigators were able to identify DNA evidence, but found no match in the federal Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). There are more than 5,000 kits without DNA evidence, or without sufficient DNA to make a clear match. Some cases have hit the statute of limitations, a complicated calculation that doesn't always prohibit prosecution. Sometimes, survivors are simply hard to reach; telephone numbers and addresses change.

Wayne County's new website, MyRapeKit.com, aims to reach survivors of sex assault whose rape kits were abandoned for decades in a police warehouse.
Wayne County's new website, MyRapeKit.com, aims to reach survivors of sex assault whose rape kits were abandoned for decades in a police warehouse.

Through MyRapeKit.com, a new website launched last month, and a new hotline, 313-224-4111, survivors of unsolved sex assaults that occurred in Detroit between 1984 and 2009 can obtain information about their kits, access free counseling from Avalon Healing and decide whether or not to engage with investigators — on their own terms. All information shared on the website or through the hotline is confidential.

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The website and hotline are advertised on billboards and bus wraps throughout southeast Michigan. That effort will expand to places like barbershops, hair salons and nail salons, churches, billboards or bathrooms at entertainment venues throughout southeast Michigan, Worthy said: "We're trying to reach people where they are."

No stone unturned

Any survivor who wants information, is in search of counseling or wants to participate in an investigation should reach out, Worthy stressed. And while the website and hotline were intended for survivors with kits in the backlog, it's OK if survivors of later assaults reach out, too, she said. No one will be turned away. Survivors shouldn't assume that prosecution isn't possible, even in cases without robust DNA results.

Susan Dillon, the lead assistant prosecutor for the Wayne County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force, said survivors who know their assailants and can provide a name can help investigators build a case. In some instances, she explained, the DNA evidence isn't strong enough to find a match in CODIS, "but if we had a known suspect, we could do a comparison."

Some assailants' DNA has simply never been entered into CODIS. But that can change; Michigan law requires the collection of DNA of anyone arrested for a felony offense to be entered into CODIS, and that means years after a sex assault has occurred, new results in the national database can yield a hit.

Sometimes a case without strong DNA is linked to a separate case with more viable results, Worthy said, adding that genetic evidence isn't required for a successful prosecution. "We prosecute cases often where the survivor has not elected to do a rape kit," she said. "DNA makes the case stronger, but if you don’t have a rape kit or DNA, that does not mean we cannot prove the case."

State legislators eliminated the 10-year statute of limitations for sex assaults committed after 2001, but it still applies to about 1,500 of the backlogged cases, some of which date to 1984. But even assaults committed before the statute of limitations was abolished can sometimes be prosecuted if the suspect left the state before the window for filing charges expired.

Sometimes a case simply must be closed. But before any such decision is made, Worthy said, "We want to leave no stone untuned. We want to know we've done everything we can do to contact these survivors, and let them make their own choices."

Opting in, regaining choice

As test results from the backlog began to land, and investigators moved first to prosecute the serial offenders with clear DNA matches in CODIS, they learned a lot about outreach to survivors.

"Because things happened so long ago, whether or not the survivors want us to reach out to them is a lingering question," Dillon said.For some, she said, contact from law enforcement a decade or more after an assault could feel intrusive. Others are pleased to learn that prosecutors haven't given up on their cases.

Worthy says the "opt-in" model was proposed by Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University professor who analyzed the backlog for the National Institute of Justice and whose work on the trauma of rape is nationally recognized.

"Sometimes," the prosecutor notes, "you don’t want to participate in an investigation; you just want to know what happened." Any survivor who does want to participate can note that, too, and an investigator will reach out, she said.

"The other thing that's important for them to know is that we believe them," Worthy said. "Because their case was not taken seriously at first, and it’s taking a long time, we want them to know: We’re still interested in finding you. We’re still interested in talking to you. We're very sorry about what happened to you, and we’re still interested in going forward with you, even if that’s just getting you information or services.".

In the first two weeks of operation, Worty's office has heard from 79 survivors.

But if just one or two survivors had reached out, that would be OK, Worthy said. It would be worth it.

Nancy Kaffer is a columnist and member of the Free Press editorial board. She has covered local, state and national politics for two decades. Contact: nkaffer@freepress.com. Become a subscriber at Freep.com. 

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Opinion: Kym Worthy trying to reach rape survivors through new website