The science of stopping sex crimes

In the quest to catch violent perps, rape kits can be a key ally – but only if they're tested

The science of stopping sex crimes
Photo illustration by Astral Eyes

In November 1996, an 82-year-old Minneapolis woman was raped in an alley as she walked her dog on Aldrich Avenue.

The DNA specimen from the crime was too small to be tested with technology available in 1996. But when the Hennepin County Attorney's Office used a federal grant in 2009-10 to review a backlog of almost 10,000 cold cases, the specimen was finally analyzed.

Because advances in technology now make it possible to test even miniscule DNA samples, there was a hit linking the DNA to Kevin Haynes, who was serving time on a Wisconsin rape conviction. A few weeks ago he was charged with the 1996 rape. The victim died before her alleged assailant was identified.

Nancy Dunlap, a former Minneapolis police lieutenant who supervised the sex crimes unit, says testing of DNA samples in rape cases is essential
Sean Smuda
Nancy Dunlap, a former Minneapolis police lieutenant who supervised the sex crimes unit, says testing of DNA samples in rape cases is essential

The Haynes cold case is among 26 charges or convictions resulting from DNA testing made possible by the federal cold-case grant, and more remain under investigation.

Communities across the nation are under growing pressure to test a backlog of hundreds of thousands of rape kits — semen and other evidence collected from victims — that have languished for years.

Rape kit testing can identify serial rapists and unknown assailants as well as exonerate innocent suspects. The fact that so many DNA samples have sat on shelves in evidence rooms for years sends negative messages to victims and encourages culprits, says Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which presses for rape kit testing.

"The message to survivors is: 'Your case doesn't matter,'" Tofte says, and the signal to offenders is, "Don't worry, this is an easy crime to get away with."

COPS ARE TOO OFTEN unwilling to devote their time and energy to alleged rapes.

They are insensitive to victims and presume — still — that they somehow invited the sexual assault.

Investigators yield to internal pressures to pursue the latest headline-grabbing crime instead of sticking with rape inquiries that can involve considerable legwork, unreliable witnesses, and shifting stories.

And those rape kit test results, though the state crime lab now usually processes them in about 30 days, sometimes sit for weeks or months on the desks of cops and prosecutors.

The surprise: These critiques are from people inside the criminal justice system.

Steve Redding, a senior assistant Hennepin County attorney in charge of sex crime prosecutions, says there's a "deeply ingrained attitude" among some police that cold cases involving rape are not a high priority.

When he helps train cops to use DNA evidence to bust open cold cases and snag serial rapists, he tells them, "You've got the best evidence in the world here.... You shouldn't be putting that one on the back burner."

Nancy Dunlap, who until her retirement in March headed the Minneapolis Police Department's sex crimes unit, shares Redding's frustrations.

Inadequate training, lack of sensitivity, and stingy resources mean predators are getting away with rape, often targeting the most vulnerable women — substance abusers, the homeless, sex workers — because the perpetrators assume nobody cares enough to solve the crimes.

"A lot of people have a difficult time working with rape victims because of their own biases," Dunlap says. "They're uncomfortable with it."

Amanda Richards is director of mental health for the Minneapolis Neighborhood Involvement Program, which operates the Rape and Sexual Abuse Center. She says the "rape culture" continues to skew society's view of the crime.

"There's still an attitude that women are asking to be raped by what they wear, what they do, that somehow they deserve it," she says. "The belief is that men are not responsible for their behavior."

MORE THAN HALF of rape victims never tell police what happened to them, making it one of the most under-reported crimes.

The FBI says 83,425 forcible rapes were reported to law enforcement nationally in 2011. Justice Department statistics show that of every 100 rapes nationally, 46 are reported to law enforcement. In 2011, the national arrest rate for rape was 24 percent.

The Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault says one in seven women in the state report being sexually assaulted at some point. FBI data show that there were 426 reported rapes in Minneapolis in 2012.

The untested rape kit issue has become an expression of outrage about the ways rape victims are treated and judged.

When City Council members in Memphis, Tennessee, learned in August that its backlog of untested rape kits totaled about 10,000, they were furious.

"I will raise taxes to get this taken care of," said Councilman Shea Flinn. "This is outrageous."

Detroit's 11,304 untested rape kits have been in a police warehouse for as long as two decades. The Detroit Crime Commission and Wayne County prosecutor are collecting donations for the $15 million needed to test the kits and investigate and prosecute the cases. The Michigan Legislature approved spending $4 million on the project.

It can cost $1,200 to $1,500 to test each kit.

Fort Worth, Texas, is seeking grants from foundations to test its backlog of 1,080 rape kits. Texas has about 20,000 rape kits waiting to be processed; lawmakers there recently appropriated $10.8 million — enough to cover testing of half of them.

Some big cities have erased their backlogs. After New York City completed testing of 17,000 kits in 2003, the arrest rate for rape rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. More than 200 cold cases were prosecuted. Los Angeles County wrapped up tests of a 12,500-kit backlog in 2011.

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