NALS legal professionals hear results of ending Kalamazoo sexual assault kit backlog

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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.

– PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

By Cynthia Price

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

NALS is the association for legal professionals. The chapter covers all of West Michigan and holds monthly educational meetings in Grand Rapids. Last month, the team composing Kalamazoo SAKI came to educate the group of about 50.

Erin House, Special Assistant Attorney General assigned to lead the project, said when she told her team that she was going to speak to the NALS group, three other team members volunteered: victim advocate (and trauma therapist) Rachel Johnson and investigators Richard Johnson and Lance Handlogten. The four gave a lively, intimate account of what it is like to pursue “cold case” sexual assault prosecutions.

In 2009, it became clear as a result of a mandate in the federal Violence Against Women Act that there were a large number of sexual assault forensic evidence kits which had never been tested across the United States. (It should also be noted that the DNA evidence contained in such kits was not admissible, or even feasible, before the mid-to-late 1980s.)

In 2009, Michigan proactively 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 alleged offender’s admitting to the “penetration,’ so that DNA evidence was not needed – 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, New York District Attorney in Manhattan 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.

The project, which resulted after legislation in Michigan and is administered by the aforementioned Bureau of Justice Assistance, is funded by a large number of agencies, including the Kalamazoo Prosecutor’s Office and the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan (which Muskegon County Prosecutor D.J. Hilson currently serves as president).

Erin House and team members 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 – and some get very anxious, even angry, when the team asks them to participate in the process.

“Without Rachel our team falls apart. She’s the foundation for us to be able to manage approaching them,” said (Richard) Johnson, “including the two investigators who occasionally fall apart too.”

Rachel Johnson said that their approach is “Victim Centered and Trauma Informed.” Always intending to leave victims better off than they were before the process started, the team (particularly Johnson) assists them in other areas  as well, including helping them with housing, getting health insurance, and furthering their education.

“We try to figure out natural supports or other services that can help them. As an advocate I think, ‘Who else can I put in place who will continue to support them after I’m gone?’” Johnson said.

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.

Investigators 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.

Both said that they now felt awful about this, noting that only approximately 3% of accusers have been found to be lying.

The team also helps with training law enforcement on interviewing sexual assault victims. Another part of their work is to reach out and educate the public on their process and the issues surrounding it.

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. There has been a high-profile conviction, in June, of a man who, after the processing of a kit implicated him, pled guilty to raping a 14-year-old girl.

NALS members asked if a backlog in sexual assault kit testing could occur again in the future. House answered that it most probably could not, because the Michigan Legislature enacted the Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Submission Act in 2015, requiring that law enforcement submit all sexual assault forensic evidence kits for testing within 14 days of receipt. In addition, crime labs must test the evidence in the kit within 90 days of receipt. (The victim must agree to release the kit, but it must also be kept for one year while the victim considers the options.)

House showed NALS members the trailer from an HBO documentary, I Am Evidence. The film centers on three cities, one of which is Detroit, and tells the story of four survivors whose rape kits went untested for years, following them as they go through the court system.
 

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