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Reality Check: Rape Kit Backlog in Mobile
MOBILE, Ala. (WPMI) Hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits are estimated to be sitting in evidence rooms all across the country collecting dust. That's hundreds of thousands of victims waiting for justice. Important DNA evidence is stored in those kits and used to identify attackers. In Detroit, more than 10,000 untested kits were discovered in 2009. In Memphis, more than 12,000. And here in Mobile? It's a question mark. MPD says it doesn't know and doesn't have the man power to physically comb through all the cases to find out. But as we found, that doesn't mean investigators have forgotten about the 1600 unsolved rape cases that go back to the early 80s.
Willie Williams raped a woman on Broad Street in Mobile in 1993. A rape kit was collected then, but it wasn't tested until 2010. That's when Lt. Joe Rose got a break in the case.
"We researched the fingerprints in that old case and actually made a hit on it," said Rose.
With a fingerprint match, the department decided to send the victim's sexual assault kit to the Department of Forensic Sciences to be tested. As it turned out, Williams DNA had been entered into the system in 1999, when he was sentenced to serve time in a state prison on an unrelated crime. His DNA matched the DNA in the rape kit. That evidence helped prosecutors secure a conviction last year, nearly 20 year after the rape occurred.
"It'd be nice to assure people that their case has not been forgotten, that we do still care about these older cases," said Rose.
Natasha Alexenko was raped at gunpoint in 1993 in New York City. Her kit sat on a shelf for nine and half years untested. She eventually got justice, but the experience prompted her to become an advocate and form Natasha's Justice Project. We spoke with her via Skype. She says law enforcement agencies should do more to make sure all rape kit are tested.
"You're hearing from victims nationwide who have in essence been re-victimized through the rape kit backlog process. Their kits aren't tested. They've been sitting for years collecting dust," said Alexenko.
MPD says it keeps every kit, but not all of them get sent to DFS for testing. For example, if the victim doesn't want to cooperate or if the victim knows who the attacker is.
"Just because someone rapes someone they know, does that really mean they wouldn't rape someone they didn't know?" said Alexenko.
"It is our policy that we send all of our rape kits to the Department of Forensic Sciences to be tested," said Sgt. Robbie Riddick with the Mobile County Sheriff's Department.
The Mobile County Sheriff's Office has 80 rape kits in its possession. All have been tested. The cases at the sheriff's office go back to 1995, but prior to that, no one seems to know where or if any rape kits exist.
"Prior to 1995 I'm not aware of where those cases are or what's going on with those cases," said Riddick.
At DFS, lab workers examine every piece submitted in a rape kit. Robotic machines obtain the DNA from samples and analyze it.
"So it helps increase efficiency tremendously," said Dr. Jason Kokoszka, with the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.
At the Mobile office, which serves eight counties, 25 sexual assault kits are waiting to be tested. Another 30 are in the process of being tested. Average turnaround time, DFS says, is six months.
"However some cases are done sooner than that. Some of the more complex cases might take a little bit longer," said Kokoszka.
Once analysis is completed, the DNA profile is uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. It's a nationwide system run by the FBI. To date, more than 5,000 investigations have been helped by the DNA profiles submitted to the system from Alabama.
Advocates say even more investigations could be helped if more police departments tested all rape kits.
Mobile Police say this year, 10 kits from unsolved cases have been submitted to DFS for testing. Lt. Rose is hopeful it will result in more arrests.