Recently, the Detroit Wayne County Prosecutor's Office sifted through a backlog of some 1,600 long-shelved rape kits — and the results of the study are eye-opening. Through matching DNA samples, the Prosecutor's office identified 100 likely serial rapists in the area. That means that DNA from about 100 offenders in Detroit alone could match that from other rape cases throughout the country.
Horribly, this is just the tip of the iceberg — officials have only tested 1,600 of the 11,000 backlogged kits. Some date as far back as the 1980s. Based in part on these numbers, some groups estimate that there is a national backlog of some 400,000 untested rape kits.
The study results do not necessarily mean that there were thousands of bungled assault prosecutions. Many rape cases do not go to trial; if the suspect confesses, if the victim recants, or if the victim goes missing, kits are more likely to sit on shelves. But then:
The abandoned tests do signify that countless victims went through the ordeal of completing a 4 to 6 hour rape kit for naught. Rape kits should help provide victims the avenue to seek justice and begin their healing process. What message are we sending them if their kits are left to catch dust in warehouses?
The data from Detroit also backs up an often-overlooked fact: serial rapists are responsible for a large percentage of assaults. According to one research study, six in ten offenders will rape again (...which sounds like an eerily rhyming rally cry). So regardless of whether a case goes to trial, rape kits should be processed and checked against a database as a means of catching the repeat offenders who display serial tendencies.
Detroit Prosecutor Kym Worthy and actre-vist Mariska Hargitay have been fighting to pass legislation to set guidelines and deadlines for processing rape kits.
And yes, this is the same Mariska Hargitay who plays Sergeant Olivia Benson on Law and Order: Special Victims Unit.
Hargitay became an active part of the cause after receiving letters from viewers disclosing their own stories about sex abuse. While playing Sergeant Benson, Hargitay learned firsthand of the shortcomings re: sex crime legislative procedure — and has since discovered that her star power can function as a mouth piece for getting the word out. In 2004, Hargitay founded the Joyful Heart Foundation in order to advocate for rape victims. After hearing of Worthy’s plight, the foundation made addressing the national rape kit backlog a top priority.
In a news conference on March 10th, Hargitay gave a heartfelt speech about the backlog. “Survivors of sexual [assault] in the city of Detroit — you have suffered enough and you deserve better,” she said. She also promised to keep using her voice and resources for the cause. Hargitay is currently in the process of producing a documentary on the topic called Shelved to help raise awareness.
According to prosecutor Kym Worthy, current results from the study link Detroit offender DNA to 23 other states in the country.
As a direct result of these discoveries, the White House proposed 35 million dollars in funding towards testing rape kits, reducing sexual crimes, and increasing support for victims.
You can also check out Joyful Heart's new site: endthebacklog.org to learn more and get involved.
Images courtesy of endthebacklog.org, Slate, and iacknowledge.net