Waiting for Justice
Sex Assault Survivors Question Delays of 'Rape Kit' Evidence
BY SOPHIE KEANE
“When it happened, I was just thinking, Is this really happening? I was terrified.”
Just past midnight on a December night last year, at the end of 19-year-old Sara’s first semester at the University of Minnesota, a fellow student raped her.
“He seemed nice,” she explains. “That night he invited me up to his room to watch a movie. We started the movie and that’s when he pushed me down. He starting trying to tear off my clothes, and pry my legs apart.”
Sara says she tried to push him away and pull up her pants, but he just pushed her back down.
“Then, I was so uncomfortable I just froze — I was so scared.”
Sara had to yell at the rapist to get him to momentarily stop. That’s when she ran out of the room and down the dormitory stairs to wake her roommate and resident assistant. They called the police; officers advised her to go to the hospital.
“They said it would help my case,” Sara explains. So she got in the back of a cop car and they took her to the nearest medical facility.
Sara submitted to a forensic medical exam, a series of procedures conducted by a forensic nurse. Over the next few hours, the nurse compiled DNA and physical evidence from the exam (hair, blood, saliva, urine, recordings of injuries) into what’s called a sexual assault forensic evidence kit, or more commonly, a “rape kit.”
“No woman would ever, ever, ever get a rape kit if it wasn’t 100 percent necessary,” Sara says. After enduring the attack, she says submitting to the forensic exam made her feel even more traumatized. “I felt completely vulnerable and attacked and scared by it.”
Yet agreeing to the rape kit procedure is the only immediate action a survivor can take in the aftermath of a sexual assault. Once tested, the evidence contained in a kit can ultimately help identify or confirm the survivor’s attacker(s) and lead to criminal charges, guilty pleas, and sentencing — sometimes without survivors ever needing to face their assailant(s) in court.
So why, then, are so many rape kits sitting on laboratory and police department shelves across the U.S., untouched and untested? Why are so many survivors like Sara still waiting for the results?
Why are they still waiting for justice?
* * *
National sexual assault prevention organizations estimate that hundreds of thousands of rape kits remain unexamined across the country. They say there’s no way to know the exact number, because only a handful of states (eight, to be exact) have passed any sort of reform to track the kits. (Minnesota is not among them.)
Some cities, however, do have information on their backlog, and in some places, the numbers are disturbingly high: 3,000 untested kits in Phoenix.11,000 in Detroit. 12,000 in Memphis.
“[As a survivor] you do the kit and think, ‘I did my part, did the exam — it was really uncomfortable, but I did it’,” explains Kristen Sukura, the executive director of the nonprofit Sexual Violence Center (SVC) in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It supports survivors of sexual assault. Sukura says if the results of a rape kit are never provided to investigators or utilized by them, survivors start to wonder, “Where’s the incentive?”
In addition, waiting to see the results from the kit “contributes to stress and anxiety, and a lack of safety for the survivor,” Sukura says. “The police can’t arrest the perpetrator. And maybe the perpetrator was a neighbor, or a co-worker.” Or in Sara’s case, a friend of a friend.
* * *
Sara says the forensic nurse conducting her exam used a cotton swab to swipe for traces of the perpetrator’s DNA in her mouth, vagina and anus. The nurse also placed saline on Sara’s breasts to try to pick up physical evidence. She examined Sara head to toe, and took note of the bruises between her legs. The redness on her shoulders. The scratches on her back.
“It sounds weird, but I was hoping there would be bigger bruises where he grabbed me,” Sara says. “I was hoping that there were some remnants of this awful thing that happened to me so I could prove that it happened, and justice could be served.”
From the perspective of forensic investigators, Sara did everything right following the attack: she refrained from urinating for an hour, instead waiting for the nurse to arrive to take a sample. She didn’t shower or change her clothes.
“The nurse took my clothes, my underwear. She put them in bags and taped them up. She put all the swabs in boxes,” Sara says, recounting each step in the process.
The rape kit was picked up by the U of M Police Department, and should have been immediately sent to a crime lab for testing. But Sara says that’s the last she ever heard of her kit.
“It makes me so mad,” Sara says, her voice cracking. “After a month or two, the police said they couldn’t do anything because they didn’t have enough evidence.” And after that, “The police never got back to me.”
In August of this year, more than eight months after she was attacked, Sara herself contacted the university police, and learned that her kit was never even opened. A spokesperson for the investigations division explained to The Reporters Inc. that the officer in charge of Sara’s case had in fact elected not to test her kit; with the suspect definitively identified, the department deemed examining the DNA evidence unnecessary. In turn, the county attorney, upon receiving the case, decided not to prosecute. Sara says she was told that authorities simply didn’t have a case that could be proven “beyond a shadow of a doubt.”
Sara’s assailant, arrested on the night of the rape, has long since been released from jail.
Sara believes that had the kit and its evidence been fully examined in a lab, and then presented to law enforcement, she could have found the justice she wanted — and expected — from creating a rape kit in the first place.
“Some survivors just want to know what came out of the rape kit,” Sukura explains. “They want to have that for closure, or deciding the next step. They’re in a space of suspended animation without it.”
Not to mention, evidence from rape kits has helped nab repeat offenders and serial rapists.
“At this point, I’m just trying to get back on my feet,” Sara says. “But I still want the asshole to go to jail.”
* * *
A crime lab run by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (a component of the state’s Department of Public Safety) handles most of the kits in the state, including those submitted by the U of M police. According to Jill Oliveira, a BCA spokesperson, there is no backlog at the crime lab.
In a statement provided to The Reporters Inc., Oliveira wrote, “The BCA has for many years consistently reported test results to the submitting agency within six weeks of receipt.” She later clarified that all of the 728 rape kits the BCA received last year were tested within six weeks.
However, major national organizations like “The Joyful Heart Foundation” and “End the Backlog,” which work directly with survivors and local groups to research the issue and develop comprehensive reforms, disagree. They define a “backlog” a bit more strictly. According to End the Backlog’s website, a backlogged kit is “one that has not been tested within 30 days of receipt by the crime lab.”
According to Randy Gustafson, the public information officer for the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department in St. Paul, Minnesota, “The real key questions are, ‘Are they [the labs] doing it right?’ and ‘Can you build your cases properly so that the whole process works for justice and for safety?’” Ramsey County sends all of the rape kits it receives directly to the BCA.
“Operating a crime lab is an expense,” Gustafson continues. “As a consequence there’s going to be some kind of press on resources.”
“It’s bullshit — sorry,” says a heated Sara. “It’s disgusting because it reinforces this idea that ‘the cops can’t do anything for you, so don’t even bother reporting it. You’ll become some social outcast who has this huge weight on your shoulders’.”
She adds, “Any survivor has a right to any information, period.”
* * *
Some U.S. cities, independent of state governments, have started making an effort to test rape kits quickly and effectively. New York City, for example, as a result of funding for a new forensic biology lab, has been able to test all 17,000 of the rape kits in its backlog. Arrest rates for sexual assault have gone up from 40 to 70 percent.
And some U.S. lawmakers have been attempting to make changes on a national level. This past June, Congress was ready to approve a spending bill that designated $41 million to fund community-based rape kit reform — $6 million more than the Obama administration initially requested — but the bill was pulled from the Senate at the last minute due to an unrelated political tiff.
“There needs to be a political will to give resources to work through backlogs,” Sukura says. “Those who provide the funding for crime labs and police departments are the real culprits.”
* * *
This past spring, Sara spent the first few weeks of her second semester at college in constant fear. As she walked from class to class, she says she’d constantly look over her shoulder, imagining worst-case scenarios. “What if I see him? What if he yells out, ‘Hey, bitch, you ruined my life!’ How would I respond?”
However, Sara says she eventually found some justice through her university. She spoke to the Student Conduct Office, which consulted with the police and set up a hearing to try Sara’s assailant through the university’s honor system. But upon learning that Sara had submitted to a rape kit examination, she says her assailant and his lawyers chose instead to forego the hearing and simply accept the university’s punishment without a fight. Sara says her attacker is on “long-term suspension” and banned from campus.
“He’s not allowed anywhere near the U of M until I graduate,” Sara explains. “It stays on his permanent record. I still don’t think it’s enough.”
* * *
According to the U.S. Department of Justice, someone is sexually assaulted every two minutes in the United States. Their 2012 National Crime Victimization Survey revealed nearly 238 thousand Americans are raped or sexually assaulted each year.
“Sexual assault is often considered a much lesser crime than homicide,” Sukura says. “But it’s important to understand that sexual assault can be a kind of death.”
Sara attends a support group for survivors of sexual assault nearly every week. She’s looking forward to returning to school in the fall, after spending most of her spring semester at a post-traumatic stress disorder recovery facility in Arizona.
She’s doing the best she can to move on, despite the failure of the criminal justice system to serve, and solve, her case.
“There will never be enough closure for me,” Sara says, sounding much older than your average 19-year old. “I’m mad. As a woman, as a survivor — as a human. I think they could’ve done a lot better.”
Sophie Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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