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Delay in Detroit rape kit testing left serial rapists at large, report

Beyond Michigan, Memphis had a test backlog of 12,000 rape kits that sat untouched since the 1980s

Justice is a long way off for for thousands victims whose rape evidence kits sat abandoned until last year in a Detroit police warehouse, a published report said Monday. The report comes as the city of Memphis, Tenn., battles two lawsuits over that city's backlog of 12,000 untested rape kits.

The Detroit backlog of 11,000 rape kits has overwhelmed the state's capacity, as most kits do not have matching police files — meaning identifying the DNA is just the first step in obtaining convictions in the crimes. The lack of prosecution allows serial rapists to remain at large, according to the report.

The Detroit Free Press published an update Monday about ongoing efforts to test the kits, which were recovered in 2009 from an abandoned police warehouse. They contain DNA and other evidence and the majority of the kits were never tested in a lab. 

The backlog was caused by the 2008 closure of the Detroit police crime lab. Since the kits' discovery in Detroit, the state of Michigan has earmarked $4 million to pay for DNA testing in private forensic labs.

"From day one, we had to literally go out and fundraise ourselves ... which was interesting because I thought this would be considered a 'mandated function,' or crime that we are supposed to be funded to prosecute," Kym Worthy, Wayne County prosecutor, told Al Jazeera, adding that they still haven't found funding for the next steps of investigation and prosecution.

"It is pathetic that we have to waste time trying to get funds ... but I'm committed to making sure these people get justice — it's a shame for a rape kit to sit on a shelf."

Of the 2,000 kits tested so far, the Free Press cited a lack of police involvement. The Detroit Police Department was involved with the first 400 of the recovered kits, but is not helping to investigate the second batch of 1,600.

The Detroit Police Department told Al Jazeera they are not involved in the investigation and referred questions to the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office. 

"We're involved in it only to the extent that we had an active investigation at one point regarding collecting the evidence, but the kits were never ordered for testing ... I can't answer to what the reasoning behind that was," Sgt. Michael Woody, a spokesman for the Detroit Police Department, told Al Jazeera.

"Now we are seeking funding through the prosecutor's office, federal funding and what not to get the kits tested."

Tests on DNA in 2,000 of the 11,000 recovered tests resulted in hits on more than 500 named suspects through the national Combined DNA Index System database, according to the report.

The police department and prosecutor's office disagree about the progress being made on the cases. Detroit police said they requested warrants on 66 cases. The prosecutor's office said they approved only 28 of those and 18 cases remain under investigation, the Free Press said. 

The prosecutor's office said police only gave them 16 warrant requests, which resulted in four convictions, with two cases currently being prosecuted, the Free Press reported. The prosecutor's office was not able to speak with Al Jazeera by the time of publication.

The reasons behind the delay in testing the kits are varied, the Free Press reported. Some of the cases are decades old, and once evidence is finally tested, victims must be found, witnesses must be interviewed, and police files must be found or reconstructed.

Detroit also faces a lack of resources that makes the investigations more difficult to carry out. It costs between $1,200 to $1,500 to complete tests on each kit, according to the Detroit Crime Commission.

In March, the White House allocated $35 millions in grants for communities like Detroit to investigate and prosecute sexual assault. Vice President Joe Biden highlighted an analysis of just 1,600 of Detroit's backlogged kits that led to the identification of 87 suspected serial rapists.

In one such case, Eric Eugene Wilkes pretended to be an undercover police officer and offered a deaf woman a ride home in June of 2006, according to the prosecutor's office. The woman accepted and was raped by Wilkes. She later went to the hospital, where a rape kit was collected. The kit was not tested for six years, the Free Press reported.

Later, after the kit was finally tested, it linked Wilkes to other rape cases. He is now serving a sentence of 8 to 30 years.

Detroit is not the only U.S. city dealing with a backlog of rape kits. Memphis, Tenn., had more than 12,000 rape kits sit untested since the 1980s. Last week, city officials said they had tested more than 4,000 of the kits and generated 14 indictments from evidence found in them. The state Legislature declined to provide funding for testing in Tennessee. 

The backlog was publicized last year and several Tennessee rape victims sued the state.

Experts say Memphis and Detroit have among the nation's largest known backlogs.

With wire services

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