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

"There have been a few of these cold cases that the DNA came back with a hit on somebody that was about to be released from prison in a couple weeks or a month," she says.

Dunlap recalls one case she helped solve. A Native American woman had been raped at knife- and gun-point, but she had chemical dependency issues and disappeared soon after.

Dunlap found her at a rehab center and the woman told her, "I didn't think anybody cared."

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

DNA testing hit on a man with a prior history of sexual misconduct, and Dunlap arrested him. He denied committing the rape.

The night before jury selection was to begin, the woman, who had been sober for three months, disappeared again. Dunlap tracked her down in another treatment center and got her to court on time.

When he saw the victim in court, the accused man's attorney immediately entered a guilty plea, and he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

"They didn't think she was going to show up," Dunlap says.

Shepherding that sort of victim through the process is time-consuming and labor-intensive, she says, but probably necessary to win convictions.

"If you're looking at these predators, someone who is going to continue these types of behaviors," she says, "that's the only way you can do it. It's not always going to work, but it doesn't mean you stop doing it."

The work done three years ago is still paying dividends. In August, Redding says, he obtained a guilty plea for a rape committed several years ago from a man whose DNA was linked to the crime.

Telling the victim her assailant would soon be in prison was "very gratifying," he says.

EVERYONE INVOLVED in rape cases believes the system can be improved.

Richards, the mental health director, says more women investigators are needed.

Advocates for victims are available at hospitals, she says, "but they're not at all the hospitals unless there's a phone call placed."

She also wishes first responders were "more sensitive to the plight of the sexual assault victim."

Too often, Richards says, investigators ask questions that suggest they don't believe a rape occurred: "Are you sure you didn't encourage this?" or "The perpetrator said it was consensual, so how can you convince me it wasn't?"

If an investigator is asking those sorts of questions, she wonders, "then what kind of recommendation are they making" to prosecutors about pursuing the case?

Rape survivors "don't like to be pressured" about whether they want to file charges or allow DNA evidence to be collected, she says. But once they decide to press charges, their impatience with the slow-moving justice system can work against them.

"Generally, victims feel like the squeaky wheel gets the grease," she says, so they feel obliged to call and ask about the status of their case. That assertiveness can be counterproductive, she says: "The challenge then for the victim is if they don't act like a victim, it's a problem for them with the police."

Most important, Richards says, victims need to "find their voice" and be made to feel comfortable talking about what happened to them. "Know your truth; claim your truth," she says.

Ledray, the pioneer in training medical personnel, believes that every level-one trauma center should be required to have a sexual assault nurse examiner available at all times in emergency rooms.

"We have made some incredible progress and I'm hoping that we're coming close to being at that tipping point," she says.

Ledray says it's unfair to expect rape survivors to take the lead in lobbying for policy changes. Most need to cope privately with the fallout of what happened to them, she says, and "only in rare exceptions do they become activists."

Tofte, who has tracked the rape kit issue for years for the Joyful Heart Foundation and, before that, for Human Rights Watch, recommends that the federal government require the tracking of rape kits. She also wants Congress to find a "much more robust funding stream," perhaps from fees or forfeited property, to ensure that DNA testing is done on all kits.

Every large-city police department should have a sex crimes unit, Tofte says. "Who's in charge and who gives the message from the top on down that [rape investigations] are important is a huge deal," she says.

Redding, who has devoted much of his career to prosecuting sex crimes, says training is key.

"There hasn't been, in my opinion, adequate training all around the country for police officers," he says.

Among the lessons that need to be emphasized: ensuring that police officers don't let DNA test results pile up on their desks while they pursue other, more recent crimes.

Prosecutors "still don't fully understand how to develop a DNA case," Redding says. And no one has developed a good system for working backward to build a criminal case after DNA helps identify a perpetrator.

Redding warned in testimony to Congress in 2009 that criminals are increasingly savvy about DNA evidence. One perpetrator who carjacked and raped his victim took her pants with him when he fled.

"I'm taking these for DNA purposes," he told her.

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