NALS hears status of sexual assault kits

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Speaking about the Kalamazoo Sexual Assault Kit Initiative to NALS professionals Sept. 13 were, l-r, Richard Johnson, investigator; Erin House, Special Assistant Attorney General; Rachel Johnson, victim advocate; and Lance Handlogten, Investigator.

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

A complex and sad story led to the origin of the Kalamazoo Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), about which legal professionals in NALS of West Michigan heard  at their meeting on Sept. 13.

In 2009, it became clear that there were a large number of sexual assault forensic evidence kits which had never been tested across the United States. Michigan asked police departments and law enforcement agencies to do an accounting of how many untested kits they had in their possession, and the numbers were large – over 11,000 found in Detroit alone.

This posed an immense problem: though there were reasons that the kits were not tested, such as a victim’s reluctance to prosecute or the lack of need for DNA evidence to prove the act occurred, there were clear benefits in testing now. But at an estimated $1,000 a kit, where would the money come from?

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy gained national attention when she vowed to test them all, and actress Mariska Hargitay of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, joined the fight to “end the backlog.”

Would this even be worthwhile? Pilot testing 400 kits in Detroit indicated it would indeed; as endthebacklog.com reports, “The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has identified 21 potential serial rapists from the first 153 kits... tested and entered into CODIS, the national DNA database, according to news reports.”

Eventually, the Manhattan (New York) District Attorney came up with $35 million, and in 2016, the Michigan State Police received a grant from that DA?and the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance to begin testing.

Such grants funded over 50,000 tests nationally, including about 180 of the approximately 200 in Kalamazoo. But knowing the results was not enough unless something would be done about it. Thus, the Kalamazoo SAKI was born in late 2017.

Erin House is the Special Assistant Attorney General assigned to lead the project. She said when she told her team that she was going to speak to NALS of West Michigan, three others volunteered: victim advocate (and trauma therapist) Rachel Johnson and investigators Richard Johnson and Lance Handlogten.

The team said that it is often very difficult to approach a victim about prosecuting an older crime. Some are glad for the closure, but many do not want to relive it. “Without Rachel our team falls apart. She’s the foundation for us to be able to manage approaching them,” said Johnson, “including the two investigators who occasionally fall apart too.”

House explained that even when victims do not want to revisit their sexual assaults, it is helpful to run the results through CODIS. For example, a victim may have told law enforcement her assailant’s name whereas another victim might not know, and the two can be correlated.

Johnson and Handlogten admitted that when they were in law enforcement they “did it all wrong,” treating the victim as if her (or his) credibility was the issue. They noted that only approximately 3% of accusers have been found to be lying. The team also helps with training on interviewing victims.

As of the presentation, while still in the early stages, Kalamazoo SAKI had taken six offenders to court, four of whom had pled guilty (two cases pending), and had 12 investigations open; they had found that 12 were previously adjudicated.

 

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