More old rape kits will be tested

State, fed­eral money to help po­lice close cases

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - By Ali­son Knezevich

Mil­lions of dol­lars are set to help po­lice around Mary­land process rape kits that have sat untested in stor­age and keep pace with new cases.

The funds in­clude $3.5 mil­lion that is part of a new state fund for test­ing, plus a por­tion of a $2.6 mil­lion fed­eral grant that also will help track kits and sup­port sur­vivors. And Bal­ti­more County re­cently re­ceived a pri­vate $300,000 grant from a lo­cal foun­da­tion to help sex­crimes de­tec­tives in­ves­ti­gate decades­old cold cases.

At last count in 2018, 10 of Mary­land’s largest po­lice de­part­ments re­ported possessing more than 6,500 untested kits, ac­cord­ing to the Mary­land At­tor­ney Gen­eral’s Of­fice. An up­dated statewide in­ven­tory is ex­pected soon.

“In my opin­ion, test­ing rape kits — whether it’s here in Bal­ti­more or in Cleve­land or in Detroit — has not been a pri­or­ity,” said Del. Shelly Het­tle­man, a Bal­ti­more County Demo­crat who has pushed for statewide re­forms. But “I have seen, in my short five years in elected of­fice, a substantia­l shift in think­ing about how the kits should be han­dled — and I would say that’s for the good.”

The fund­ing comes as Mary­land puts into place new rules for how po­lice

han­dle sam­ples taken from sex­ual as­sault vic­tims, of­ten called rape kits. Start­ing Jan. 1, state law will re­quire po­lice to promptly sub­mit most rape kits for foren­sic test­ing un­less the vic­tim doesn’t want that.

In­ves­ti­ga­tions by The Bal­ti­more Sun have found that hun­dreds of rape kits have been de­stroyed by po­lice de­part­ments rather than stored, even though it is not un­com­mon for vic­tims to change their minds about press­ing charges. A 2017 law now re­quires po­lice to re­tain kits for 20 years.

A rape kit con­tains ev­i­dence, such as sam­ples of blood and se­men, col­lected dur­ing a med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tion that can last more than four hours. Af­ter a crime lab pro­cesses the sam­ples, the DNA pro­file can be sub­mit­ted to a na­tional FBI data­base to com­pare it with oth­ers. So test­ing a rape kit some­times can lead to a sus­pect wanted in con­nec­tion with an­other as­sault.

It typ­i­cally costs an av­er­age of $1,000 to $1,500 to process one rape kit. In many cases in Mary­land, po­lice have cho­sen not to sub­mit kits for test­ing.

Ad­vo­cates say the num­ber of untested kits are a man­i­fes­ta­tion of larger short­com­ings in in­ves­ti­gat­ing and prose­cut­ing sex­ual as­saults, from not be­liev­ing vic­tims to fail­ing to follow up on leads.

“It’s like a symp­tom of an ill­ness, that rape and sex­ual as­sault are is­sues that aren’t taken se­ri­ously in a va­ri­ety of ways — by all kinds of in­dus­tries, all kinds of people, in­clud­ing law en­force­ment,” said Brit­tany Oliver, founder of the Bal­ti­more-area ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion Not With­out Black Women.

Mary­land was awarded a $2.6 mil­lion grant last year from the U.S. Depart­ment of Jus­tice as part of the Sex­ual As­sault Ev­i­dence Kit Ini­tia­tive, a na­tional ef­fort that has in­ven­to­ried more than 87,000 kits and sent more than 54,000 for test­ing.

About a third of the grant will help test roughly 900 kits that were col­lected be­fore April 2018. Other money is set aside to de­velop a track­ing sys­tem and hire vic­tim ad­vo­cates.

“We do not be­lieve the fed­eral fund­ing will even come close to test­ing all the old kits, but we’re hope­ful that we will be able to be­gin the process,” said Lisae Jor­dan, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mary­land Coali­tion Against Sex­ual As­sault.

The test­ing funds will be dis­trib­uted in the com­ing year, said Raquel Coombs, a spokes­woman for At­tor­ney Gen­eral Brian Frosh’s of­fice, which staffs a statewide over­sight committee for rape kit pol­icy and fund­ing.

In ad­di­tion, Mary­land law­mak­ers this year es­tab­lished an an­nual fund of $3.5 mil­lion to help pre­vent a back­log go­ing for­ward.

The state money to test rape kits was part of $245 mil­lion set aside by the Democrat­con­trolled Gen­eral Assem­bly that was held up by Republican Gov. Larry Ho­gan in a dis­pute over state spend­ing. Ho­gan later al­lo­cated the $3.5 mil­lion for test­ing from the ex­ist­ing bud­get of the Gov­er­nor’s Of­fice of Crime Con­trol and Pre­ven­tion, which is ad­min­is­ter­ing the pro­gram.

Ap­pli­ca­tions from po­lice de­part­ments were due Nov. 18. State officials said six agen­cies ap­plied but wouldn’t say which ones. They could not yet pro­vide an es­ti­mate of the num­ber of rape kits that could be tested us­ing the money.

Ad­vo­cates are hope­ful the ef­forts will help close cases.

Across the coun­try, “old kits are end­ing up in ar­rests and pros­e­cu­tions of th­ese of­fend­ers who have been es­cap­ing jus­tice for decades,” said Ilse Knecht, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy for the Joyful Heart Foun­da­tion, a na­tional non­profit that ad­vo­cates for count­ing and test­ing all kits.

At the same time, the prospect of re­open­ing old in­ves­ti­ga­tions may dig up painful mem­o­ries for vic­tims who be­lieved their case was closed. Ad­vo­cates are work­ing to help po­lice agen­cies es­tab­lish pro­to­cols for how to ap­proach vic­tims in cold cases.

“It’s vi­tal that we reach out to sur­vivors and let them know the sta­tus of their rape kit, seek their con­sent and advice … and make sure they’re as in­volved as they want to be,” Jor­dan said.

In Bal­ti­more County, po­lice are look­ing back on cases that are decades old.

In the 1970s — long be­fore po­lice used DNA to solve rape cases — Dr. Rudi­ger Bre­it­e­necker be­gan to cat­a­log sam­ples from women who went to the Greater Bal­ti­more Med­i­cal Cen­ter af­ter as­saults. The doc­tor pre­served se­men and other flu­ids on mi­cro­scope slides, be­liev­ing they would some­day be vi­able ev­i­dence.

The sam­ples al­ready have helped county po­lice clear dozens of cases since the early 2000s, but slides as­so­ci­ated with more than 1,500 county cases re­main untested.

The Hackerman Foun­da­tion — named for the late phi­lan­thropist and Whit­ingTurner

CEO Wil­lard Hackerman — re­cently do­nated $300,000 to the county gov­ern­ment to help sex crimes de­tec­tives in­ves­ti­gate cold cases.

The GBMC sam­ples are not con­sid­ered stan­dard rape kits as Bre­it­e­necker be­gan col­lect­ing them be­fore the process was stan­dard­ized. They’re not counted in of­fi­cial tal­lies of untested rape kits in Mary­land.

Het­tle­man said her con­stituent Nancy Hackerman, daugh­ter of the Whit­ingTurner chief, had read about her work on sex­ual as­sault is­sues and asked whether there was any­thing she could do to help. Even­tu­ally the county sub­mit­ted a pro­posal to the foun­da­tion.

Nancy Hackerman could not be reached for com­ment. The foun­da­tion did not make a pub­lic com­ment when county officials an­nounced the grant.

In Oc­to­ber, a re­view by a task force set up by County Ex­ec­u­tive Johnny Ol­szewski Jr., a Demo­crat, found that po­lice rarely tested ev­i­dence from rapes or filed charges in cases where vic­tims did not re­port right away.

County po­lice plan to spend the grant money on a range of ex­penses, from staff train­ing and over­time to foren­sic ge­neal­ogy stud­ies, as well as test­ing of both the GBMC slides and mod­ern-era rape kits, ac­cord­ing to a county grant pro­posal.

Lt. Brian Edwards, com­man­der of the county’s spe­cial vic­tims unit, said po­lice are comb­ing through mi­cro­fiche po­lice re­ports and old log books to try to link un­solved cases to GBMC slides.

“That’s a long and ar­du­ous task ahead of us,” he said. But “I think there’s the pos­si­bil­ity of iden­ti­fy­ing pros­e­cutable cases.”

Pri­vate do­na­tions, along with gov­ern­ment fund­ing, have played a key role in help­ing au­thor­i­ties in Detroit work their way through more than 11,000 untested kits that were dis­cov­ered a decade ago in a po­lice stor­age fa­cil­ity.

“We had to have house par­ties, we had to have cam­paign par­ties,” said Kym Wor­thy, Wayne County, Michi­gan’s prose­cut­ing at­tor­ney, in an in­ter­view with Michi­gan’s pub­lic ra­dio net­work, adding that people in all 50 states and nine for­eign coun­tries stepped in to help.

The ef­forts in Detroit have re­sulted in the iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of 824 se­rial of­fend­ers from 40 states, in­clud­ing Mary­land, and 197 con­vic­tions, ac­cord­ing to Wor­thy’s of­fice.

Knecht, of the Joyful Heart Foun­da­tion, said ag­gres­sive pros­e­cu­tion of old and dif­fi­cult cases is cru­cial.

“Test­ing is one thing,” she said. “If you don’t do any­thing with the re­sults that come out of the test­ing, it’s a piece of pa­per.”

Bal­ti­more County State’s At­tor­ney Scott Shel­len­berger pre­vi­ously op­posed state leg­is­la­tion to re­quire lo­cal po­lice to test rape kits, say­ing law en­force­ment has lim­ited re­sources and that in many cases a sus­pect’s iden­tity is not in ques­tion since the vic­tim and per­pe­tra­tor know each other.

But the prose­cu­tor said he now sees the value in test­ing all kits even when au­thor­i­ties know a per­pe­tra­tor’s iden­tity be­cause re­search shows it can link sus­pects to other crimes.

“If we find a case and we can go for­ward, we will,” said Shel­len­berger, a mem­ber of the statewide committee tasked with over­see­ing fund­ing and pol­icy for rape kit test­ing.

Some ad­vo­cates say the fact that pri­vate donors have stepped in to test rape kits points to a fail­ure of gov­ern­ment.

Last month, at a Tow­son news con­fer­ence where Bal­ti­more County officials an­nounced the foun­da­tion grant, for­mer Anne Arun­del County Ex­ec­u­tive Laura Neu­man, a rape sur­vivor and ad­vo­cate, ques­tioned why all the GBMC slides have not been tested.

In 1983, at the age of 18, Neu­man was raped at gun­point in the bed­room of her Bal­ti­more home. No one be­lieved her, she said, and po­lice did not in­ves­ti­gate.

Nearly two decades later, in her 30s, Neu­man pressed city po­lice to re­open the case. They matched fin­ger­prints taken from her win­dow to Alphonso W. Hill, who pleaded guilty to the at­tack.

“It had been 19 years, and it was solved in three days,” Neu­man said in a re­cent in­ter­view.

Then, af­ter county de­tec­tives be­gan look­ing into the GBMC slides in the early 2000s, they linked Hill to other rapes. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to six at­tacks in the Tow­son area from 1978 to 1989. Au­thor­i­ties later con­nected him to more un­solved as­saults.

The way po­lice have han­dled rape kits, Neu­man said, speaks to how so­ci­ety has viewed sex crimes.

“If this were any other crime, wouldn’t we test all the ev­i­dence?” Neu­man asked.

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