By CAITLIN McARTHUR
Capital News Service
LANSING — The testing of thousands of rape kits discovered in a Detroit Police Department evidence warehouse in 2009 has matched DNA to just over 1,000 people already in the Michigan State Police database, but officials now face the much bigger task of tracking down the offenders.
Advocates, state legislators and the State Police say Detroit’s backlog of 11,000 rape kits is expected to be cleared by the end of the the year, but a lack of additional resources has stalled the progress of prosecutions.
A shortage of money and manpower has advocates campaigning for more resources from local, state and federal levels.
“Getting the kits tested does us no good if we don’t have the resources to find the victims and the perpetrators and get justice,” said Peg Tallet, chief community engagement officer for the Michigan Women’s Foundation and the Detroit initiative Enough SAID (Sexual Assault in Detroit).
Enough SAID, which raised nearly $5 million from a mix of private individuals and public companies to help clear the DNA backlog, is now campaigning to raise more money to fund the prosecution efforts.
“Basically there are just inadequate resources in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s office and police departments to investigate all of these — the cold case backlog in addition to the ongoing work,” Tallet said.
To date, Detroit police have committed six full-time investigators and a supervisor to the cases. The Wayne County prosecutor’s office has committed another two employees, but Tallet said the state needs more than nine people working on this.
“People don’t understand that testing is just the first step,” she said. “It’s absolutely critical that we have adequate people to do the investigations.”
According to Associated Press reports, several other areas of the state have rape kit backlogs. The most recent discovery was made in a Flint police department with 250 untested rape kits found.
Flint is also short on funds, but has taken a more unusual approach to testing. A TV show, Cold Justice, is paying for the kits to be tested in exchange for access to evidence, police reports and interrogation information.
Tallet said she was unaware of the exact location of the other backlogs.
“There are 400,000 untested kits in the United States that we know of, so we assume there are other areas of Michigan with backlogs,” she said. “We’re looking at the Enough SAID initiative as a pilot project to get this done, and to see if it is feasible to do it as a private/public partnership.”
The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office has won 15 convictions since the work on the backlog started.
“Statistically, the average rapist rapes 11 times, so while DNA is sitting somewhere untested, other people are being assaulted,” Tallet said.
The search for these offenders, Tallet said, was not going to be easy.
In many cases the evidence dates back over 20 years, meaning police have to track down not only the perpetrators but the victims too.
A timeline of the efforts made to clear the backlog, provided by State Police Public Affairs Director Shanon Banner, shows a total of 1,187 matches found within the MSP database to date, with work to be completed at the end of the month.
The Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Submission Act passed by the Michigan Legislature in June last year established deadlines for investigators to retrieve sexual assault evidence kits, submit the evidence to forensic labs, and have that evidence analyzed.
The act aims to prevent another backlog of this size from occurring, even as the state works to clear its current one.
Sen. David Hildenbrand, chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a Lowell Republican, said by email that he was interested in boosting funds to clear the backlog of DNA/rape kit evidence and subsequent prosecutions.
“I think we owe it to the victims from a public safety standpoint to get these perpetrators off the street,” Hildenbrand said.
Hildenbrand said he planned to consult with Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office to expedite the prosecution of the DNA/rape kits.
“This will be an important part of the legislature’s discussion regarding the 2015-16 state budget over the next two months,” Hildenbrand said.
By CAITLIN McARTHUR