The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is now investigating and prosecuting hundreds of sexual assault cases after scientists finished reviewing rape kits in 2019 — according to a report the Detroit Police Department’s Special Victims Unit delivered to the Board of Police Commissioners (BOPC) last month.
The Prosecutor’s Office reviewed 11,137 of 11,341 untested rape kits that were backlogged between 1984 and 2009. The untested kits became a huge scandal for Detroit when they were discovered in a police department warehouse in 2009.
According to a monthly report from the Prosecutor’s Office, 4,029 investigations have been closed and 224 convictions have been made as a result of the backlogged kits being tested. Many of the cases involved rapists who attacked more than one woman, hence the disparity in convictions and investigations, Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said.
Worthy said testing the kits helps lower the number of sexual assaults in Detroit by getting serial rapists off the streets.
“The DNA from these sexual assault kits and evidence that’s entered into the database can help solve murders, it can help solve robberies, so it’s going to help a lot of different clients besides just sexual assault survivors,” Worthy said.
Worthy said processing evidence also helps police departments across the country.
“Rapists don’t stop at Eight Mile Road, so we found that rapists that were found in 2009 in Detroit have connections to crime scenes in 40 states all together, including Michigan,” she said.
Worthy has been instrumental in getting the unopened rape kits tested since they were discovered in 2009. Worthy leads the Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Project, which submits the kits to a forensic laboratory. Two years ago, Worthy helped secure $1 million in federal funds to help get the backlogged kits reviewed.
Detroit police are currently investigating 199 cases from 2009 as a result of testing the uncovered rape kits. According to the Prosecutor’s Office, another 155 cases are awaiting investigation.
Worthy said she hopes this can give sexual assault survivors a renewed sense of confidence in the cirminal justice system.
“We know through research that, unfortunately, oftentimes victims of these types of crimes don’t want to re-engage with a police department that further violated them by ignoring their (rape kits) and ignoring the evidence of their crime,” she said.
John Serda, a DPD captain in the Special Victims Unit, spoke about the rape kit project during the Aug. 19 BOPC meeting. Serda said a lot of sexual assault survivors simply don’t want to talk to police.
“One of the ways we try to help them is we get them in touch with our social workers immediately so that they’re dealing with somebody that’s non law enforcement and has a background in this type of work,” Serda said.
The untested rape kits scandal brought to light cultural issues that existed within the Detroit Police Department, specifically around not believing victims who reported assaults. Serda said it can be hard to get people to trust the police.
“We try to help, but we don’t have the answer to every situation. And it is a very difficult problem that we deal with in many of these cases,” he said.
Worthy said she wants to ensure that every prosecutor, judge and law enforcement officer in the county is trained to understand the neurological signs of trauma.
“Some people don’t respond in the stereotypical manner for someone who has just been through an assault,” she said. “So we need to recognize that despite what someone might look like on the surface or what they might seem like after an assault, we need to take their stories seriously.”
Kim Trent is the deputy director for prosperity for the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. Before she took a job with the state, Trent started the African American 490 Challenge, a fund-raising campaign to get the rape kits tested.
Trent said she believes sexual assaults are, unfortunately, going to keep happening despite efforts by the Prosecutor’s Office and law enforcement.
“However, I think we can change the way we view victims, change the way we prosecute, and change the way we have law enforcement interact with both people who are victims of sexual assault and the people who (are) perpetrators of sexual assault,” Trent said.
Trent credits Worthy with doing more than just handling the backlogged rape kits.
“(Worthy) made sure that Michigan’s laws changed so that we’ll never have this problem again,” Trent said. “I think that’s meaningful because it ensures that the past victims had an opportunity to have justice.”
As of 2014, law enforcement agencies in Michigan are required to collect rape kits from the hospital within 14 days. They’re also required to send kits for testing within 14 days of taking possession. The law requires that a lab analyze rape kits within 90 days, if sufficient resources are available.
Trent says the process of gathering evidence for a rape kit can be a harrowing event for survivors and last several hours. She said she hopes no one has to go through that again.
“Having a rape kit done is so invasive,” she said. “To go through that and then to think that somebody put your kit on the shelf for decades — is just so disrespectful.”
CORRECTION: This article was updated for clarity. Scientists completed forensic testing and a review of sexual assault kits in 2019. The Wayne County Prosecutors Office is currently investigating and prosecuting these cases. An earlier version of this article misstated when rape kits were completed.