Detroit Is Finally Doing Something About Its 11,000 Untested Rape Kits

In the years leading up to Detroit’s 2013 bankruptcy filing, as local leaders scrambled to keep a city afloat that couldn’t even afford street lights, thousands of rape kits somehow went untested, preventing countless rapists from being prosecuted. In 2009, 11,000 untested kits were found in a Detroit police storage unit. Two thousand of the kits have been tested since then by Detroit prosecutors, and now local leaders are turning to private donors and businesses to raise the funds to finish the testing and prevent future sexual violence. Of the 2,000 kits that were tested, a DNA match was found for 670 of them. These results have lead to the identification of 188 (!) serial rapists and the conviction of 15 of them. The other 9,000 kits remain nauseatingly untouched all these years later, despite how many women could be spared from future attacks if the results put repeat offenders behind bars — and despite the fact that those 9,000 victims who submitted the rape kits have yet to see any kind of justice. How many other murders, rapes and violent crimes have happened as a direct result of the city failing to do its job by testing the kits on time?

According to the Detroit Free Press, one of the men convicted in the delayed testing was Shelly Andre Brooks, who raped and murdered seven women after he assaulted the woman who submitted a rape kit to police. If authorities had matched Brooks’ DNA earlier, those women would likely still be alive today. Other DNA matches included several other serial rapists who’d committed multiple offenses in the years since the initial rape kits were submitted, including a man named Eric Eugene Wilkes, who pretended to be an undercover cop to gain the trust of a deaf woman who he then raped and attempted to clean off in order to destroy any evidence. The woman’s rape kit went untested for six years, and once it was, the DNA connected Wilkes to three other assaults and lead to his conviction. Sadly, these men are far from outliers, and many of the other DNA matches lead authorities to similar cases. What’s especially egregious is that situations like this are fairly common. Thousands of untested rape kits have also been discovered in Memphis, Cleveland, Tulsa, Las Vegas, Dallas and Toledo; and only two of those cities are currently carrying out tests on the kits. I shudder to think of how many women’s lives have been destroyed due to their city’s failure to prosecute serial rapists the first time they were reported.

The office of Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, who is an assault victim herself, has teamed up with the Michigan Women’s Foundation to raise $10 million to seek justice for victims and to make Detroit an overall safer place to live. The fundraising campaign, called Enough SAID (Sexual Assault In Detroit), has raised $750,000 from individuals and business in 45 states and multiple countries, and the state of Michigan has set aside $4 million for the cause. The initiative has raised enough to test the remaining kits, which are expected to be finished by May, but testing is just the beginning. The city also lacks the cash to investigate and prosecute cases that provide a DNA match, to ensure future rape kits are tested in a timely manner, and to prevent sexual violence in the city, which is why the fundraising goal is so ambitious. Asking private donors for help is obviously not the kind of typical procedure you’d see on “Law and Order,” but it’s working, and maybe other cities with similar issues should take note. The notion of crowdfunding justice sounds bleak on paper, but rape is everyone’s problem, so why shouldn’t anyone who feels inclined contribute to a local government’s effort to stop it? Obviously, it’d be ideal if cities managed their money well enough to be able to afford basic law enforcement tasks on their own, but we’re way past the point of trusting government leaders to do that, right? Maybe this is the next best thing. We’re all members of this society that perpetuates rape culture, and the responsibility is on all of us to change that reality. In this case, that can mean helping Detroiters find some justice.

Carolyn Cassin, CEO of the Michigan Women’s fund said in a Detroit press conference that this effort, which is the one of the first in the U.S. to actually give a shit about untested rape kits, is “a critical statement that crimes against women will not be brushed aside or diminished in any way.” When Worthy was assaulted back in law school, she didn’t report the attack out of fear that it would damage her law career. Decades later, with victims still waiting years to see justice, it doesn’t seem that prospects have improved much in modern cases. A victim should be able to trust that the often traumatic experience of a rape kit will lead to a legitimate effort to seek justice. She should be able to trust that authorities will take her attack seriously enough to, at the very least, bother to follow through on the testing that is a part of their job description instead of tossing the untouched kit onto a shelf to be forgotten. Is there any more obvious way for a city to demonstrate just how low it prioritizes rape and its resulting trauma than literally stashing the evidence? Things are hopefully about to change under Worthy’s watch, and maybe her efforts will show other cities just how unacceptable it is to leave victims hanging. If you’d like to donate, visit Enough SAID’s website! [Detroit Free Press]