Five years ago, 11,000 untested rape kits were discovered in a police storage facility in Detroit. So far, just 1,600 kits have been tested, but that small number has yielded startling results: 100 serial rapists have been identified, and the DNA of 10 since-convicted rapists has been found.
So what do these findings mean? Of 1,600 women raped in Detroit in the last 25 years, 100 of their attackers raped more than once. And among convicted rapists in Michigan, 10 might have been caught sooner had some of these decades-old kits been tested.
Mariska Hargitay, founder of the nonprofit End the Backlog and star of Law and Order: SVU, spoke Monday about the findings, saying, “My head exploded. We have the means to do it, and DNA equals justice.”
Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy, who spearheaded the effort to clear Detroit’s backlog, said that 14 prosecutions so far have resulted from these kits getting tested. She and Hargitay announced legislation that aims to end the state’s rape-kit backlog by laying out rules for how and when kits should be handled. It will soon be presented to Michigan legislators.
Nationwide, there are an estimated 400,000 rape kits lying untested. If all of those kits were tested, untold numbers of serial offenders could be identified. Research shows that 63 to 71 percent of offenders rape more than once, committing an average of six assaults each. And serial rapists are responsible for 91 to 95 percent of all rapes.
Indeed, the data proves what activists have long known: Rapists go on raping with impunity unless they’re caught. Imagine the number of survivors who might have been spared if those rape kits in Detroit had been tested sooner.
Each rape kit that goes untested represents a lost opportunity for justice. Each untested kit also represents a survivor who endured an invasive medical exam involving scraping, prodding and photographing, that can last up to six hours. If those kits are never tested, it’s as if she was victimized twice: once by her assailant and once by the justice system.
So far, just three states—Colorado, Illinois and Texas—have legislation governing when and how rape kits must be tested. But there is a movement afoot to see these laws enacted nationwide, since local police don’t often have the resources or systems in place to handle testing. We’ll be watching to see if Michigan steps up for sexual-assault victims.
Photo of researcher removing DNA from a test tube, from Wikimedia Commons
Stephanie Hallett is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. She can be found on Twitter @stephhallett.