Worthy cause: Prosecutor fights to end rape kit backlog


"Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay is flanked by Deputy Mayor Ike McKinnon and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy.

By Kurt Anthony Krug

Legal News

Backlogs of sexual assault kits (SAKs) have become an epidemic across the nation.

Yet Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” actress Mariska Hargitay are determined to end the backlog and ensure that justice is served for rape victims, regardless of when they were sexually assaulted.

In March, Worthy announced the Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Submission Act, which provides timely analysis of SAKs by implementing protocols for SAK pick-up by law enforcement agents and DNA testing by crime labs.

“Law enforcement has a duty to make sure that the important evidence contained in (SAKs) is handled, tested, and analyzed in a timely manner, not only for the sake of the victim, but for the protection of the public,” said Worthy, 57, the first woman and first African-American to be elected Wayne County Prosecutor — a position she’s held for more than 10 years.

The impetus behind this legislation came in 2009 when Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Robert Spada of the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office was taking inventory at a Detroit Police Department storage facility taken over by the Michigan State Police. Spada made discovered that 11,304 SAKs — some dating back to the 1980s — had been shelved.

A preliminary review revealed that the majority of these backlogged SAKs had never been submitted to either the DPD Crime Lab or the MSP Forensics Lab for DNA analysis.

SAKs are performed in the aftermath of a sexual assault.

They contain and preserve evidence.

If the victim chooses to report her rape to the police, the evidence in the SAK can be a very powerful mechanism in bringing a rapist to justice.

 “Through advances in science, DNA has given us a powerful investigative tool to identify and prosecute rapists,” said Worthy, a graduate of the University of Michigan and the University of Notre Dame Law School. “Testing the kits is one thing. Testing them doesn’t bring justice to anyone. They have to be investigated and prosecuted. Now we’re trying to get funded — investigators and prosecutors — to carry these cases to fruition.”

In direct response to this overwhelming number of backlogged SAKs, Worthy initiated partnerships with the DPD, the MSP Forensic Science Division, Michigan State University, the Michigan Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Prevention and Treatment Board, the Wayne County Sexual Assault Forensic Examiners, YWCA Interim House, the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan/Prosecuting Attorney Coordinating Council, and the Joyful Heart Foundation.

The latter is a nonprofit organization founded in 2004 by Hargitay, helping rape victims become survivors and reclaim a sense of joy in their lives.

Hargitay also launched another nonprofit organization called “No More,” which is a community and corporate effort to raise awareness and end domestic violence and sexual assault.

“When I travel across the country to speak out about the (SAK) backlog, I tell people to look to Detroit for inspiration for what is possible when a city makes a commitment to end their backlog,” said Hargitay. “By prioritizing rape kit reform, Detroit sends a fundamental and crucial message to victims of sexual violence: You matter. What happened to you matters. Your case matters.”

Detroit has since set a precedent for the rest of the nation in terms of attaining standards for SAK reform, including the city’s commitment to investigate every lead generated from the SAKs and institute comprehensive victim notification for survivors whose cases are impacted by the abandoned SAKs.

Hargitay has become one of Worthy’s staunchest allies in this fight, which has gained significant media exposure as they’ve appeared on a number of talk shows and news broadcasts.
Joyful Heart has donated $75,000 to fund SAK testing and provide services to those working with rape victims.

Hargitay is also filming a documentary about the backlogged SAKs, tentatively titled “Shelved.”

“Mariska has been true to her word in everything she’s said she would do and she’s done. She is extremely committed to this cause,” said Worthy. “She came here and she doesn’t have to — she’s a successful actress on a long-running show that’s been doing very, very well — and can give her time to anything. She’s chosen to give her time, attention, money, and resources to this. Her commitment is unwavering.”

Farmington Hills native Allison Leotta — a former sex crimes prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia who is now a best-selling author of legal thrillers — stated that the SAK backlog problem is addressed in her next novel, “A Good Killing,” slated for a 2015 release. 

In it, sex crimes prosecutor Anna Curtis returns to her native Michigan to defend her younger sister Jody who’s been charged with murder.

As Anna investigates Jody’s case, she discovers a man she suspects is a serial child molester. However, Anna can’t be sure initially because the SAKs in his cases were shelved as part of the backlog. 

“The rape kit backlog referenced in this novel is a real and scandalous problem in America,” Leotta stated in the author’s note at the end of “A Good Killing.” “Most jurisdictions don’t even keep track of how many rape kits are processed. While no one knows the precise numbers, it’s estimated that hundreds of thousands of rape kits are sitting in warehouses untested.

“Some have been rotting there for years – even decades – the forensic value of their DNA samples degrading with each passing month. As a tool for solving crime and getting predators off the streets, rape kits are worth their weight in gold. For example, when Detroit started testing its more than 11,000 untested rape kits, the city found (more than) 100 serial rapists in the first 1,600 tests. But these kits only work if they’re tested. Lack of funding and apathy still contribute to the national backlog.”

Gov. Rick Snyder, and state  Attorney General Bill Schuette have made $4 million available to test the SAKs.

This money covers most of the balance for the remaining SAKs needing to be tested. The State of Michigan also negotiated a smaller fee per SAK to be tested at crime labs.

“It’s been my hope that the people who were raped within the last 25-30 years (will) call and get involved,” said Worthy. “I want them to know even though most victims didn’t get timely and swift justice, there’s a different attitude in Wayne County now about sexual assault than there was then.”

To date, approximately 1,600 SAKs have been tested, 59 percent of which have had matches in the CODIS (the national DNA databank) across 24 different jurisdictions and states, identified 87 serial rapists, and convicted 10.

To Worthy, this is just the beginning.

“We’re projecting at least five years to get through this process, probably longer,” said Worthy. “I’m very pleased with the fact that we’ve been able to locate all but one victim so far. I’m very pleased most victims want to go forward with their case. We certainly would never force a victim to pursue it if they do not want to.”

Worthy is no stranger to sexual assault. In 1980 when she was in law school, she was attacked while jogging.

“I didn’t report it to the police,” Worthy said. “I reported it to the law school. I went to my doctor but not the hospital. I was checked out by my doctor. I decided I wasn’t going to pursue it any further.”

Worthy said she believed at the time “the stereotypes about rape and rape victims; I was not very educated about that. I believed whatever I had to go through, I would not be the same person that I was and wouldn’t be able to complete my schooling. My family knew. My friends knew. The law school knew. That was enough.

“You’re made up by the sum of your experiences,” Worthy added. “Clearly if that didn’t happen to me, maybe I wouldn’t be the person I am now. The first thing I’m aware of is it makes me have deep respect for women who have the courage to report their assault to the criminal justice system; it’s a very hard thing to do. You’ve got to do what’s best for you.”

Worthy has insisted that what happened to her during law school wasn’t what motivated this legislation.

“I don’t think that is what motivated me,” she said. “What motivated me is that I had potentially (more than) 11,000 victims of crimes who were brave enough to report these crimes, had gone through this exhaustive process, and had been virtually ignored by the criminal justice system.

“I’m responsible for prosecuting crime in this county. It didn’t even cross my mind that I shouldn’t delve into this and find out what we had and make sure we could bring justice to all the victims we could. There wasn’t even a second thought to do anything else.”