Back in 2009, reporters Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi discovered that the Cleveland Police Department had a massive backlog of so-called rape kits going back decades.
The kits include the DNA swabs taken from women who have reported they've been sexually assaulted. The DNA is used to identify the men who allegedly attacked them.
In thousands of cases, the DNA simply wasn't tested. The kits sat on the shelf, the cases went unsolved, and the alleged rapists went unpunished.
Now, at last, the kits are being taken down and tested.
A Nationwide Queue
"They had to sort through thousands of kits and other pieces of evidence in their evidence room," says Rachel Dissell, who covered the story for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "What they found was that there was about 4,000 that had never been tested."
So far, 1,000 kits have been tested and the remaining 3,000 are still waiting. This isn't just a problem in Cleveland. In Houston, there are over 8,000 untested kits and over 11,000 in Detroit. The federal government estimates that nationwide, 400,000 rape kits have gone untested.
"DNA testing became more widely available in the early '90s but that doesn't mean that every state or police department had a method for getting that testing done," Dissell says. "It was quite expensive in the beginning and so the investigations themselves were not really all that extensive."
But it's not too late to test these kits.
"So long as they're kept in a cool, dry place, that DNA can be usable for quite a long time," says Dissell.
Reopening Past Horrors
As the cases get solved, Dissell and her colleagues, as well as prosecutors and detectives, are finding themselves in the difficult position of knocking on the doors of rape victims and asking them to talk about horrific things.
One of these women is Allyssa Allison. She reported she was raped in 1993, but her kit was never tested. She says she even told police she knew who her attacker was. Even though he was hiding his face, she says she's sure it was her landlord.
"I had a gut feeling," Allison says. "Everything was pointing that way. He just knew too much about the things that were wrong with my apartment."
Like the broken window in the bathroom he used to break in.
"I had told him numerous times that that needed to be fixed. And he never fixed it," she says.
Fast-forward 20 years to this past summer, when Allison got a knock on the door from a female detective.
"I wasn't very nice, to be honest," Allison says. "She's like, 'I really have to talk to you,' and I was like, 'I'm not ready to talk, what are you here for?' And she's like, 'Well, this is important.'"
The detective eventually left, but later called Allison on the phone. She told her it was in regards to her rape in 1993.
"Literally, my jaw did drop," Allison says. "It was very surreal, because I kind of knew where the conversation was going to go. I said, 'Well did you find him?' And she was like, 'No. But we do have something called a possible DNA hit.'"
That meant police had finally tested Allison's rape kit — and returned a positive ID for her landlord.
"I think I had said over the phone to her, 'I knew it. I knew it.' And 20 years ago, the police didn't want to listen to me," she says.
Confirmation, Too Late
It was too late to prosecute the landlord. He died in 2005. Testers had to use his son's DNA to identify him.
Her landlord's DNA also matched DNA from a rape kit of another woman who lived in Allison's building complex. That news wasn't easy for Allison to hear.
"That's the part that really gets me sick. Literally makes me nauseous is the fact that he got away with doing this — after he did this to me," Allison says.
The DNA was also a match for at least two other rape cases. "But who knows, there might be others," Allison says. "And that's the part that really gets to me. That breaks my heart."
She says there is one thing that gives her solace, though: She doesn't have to be afraid of him anymore.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Kelly McEvers.
Back in 2009, two newspaper reporters discovered that police in Cleveland had a massive backlog going back decades of so-called rape kits. These are the DNA swabs that are taken from women who've been raped, DNA that could identify the men who committed the crime. But in thousands of cases, the DNA simply wasn't tested. The kits sat on the shelf. The cases went unsolved, and the rapists went unpunished.
Now, the kits are being taken down, one by one, and tested, not just in Cleveland but in cities like Detroit and Houston with some amazing results.
MCEVERS: Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper are the reason we know about this story. I asked Rachel Dissell how they first heard about the rape kits.
RACHEL DISSELL: We had been doing some reporting after a serial murder case here in Cleveland where 11 women were raped and killed. And in our reporting that followed that, we started asking a lot of questions about how sexual assault cases were handled. And one of the questions that we asked were about these exams that were done on women and the evidence that was collected and what was done with it.
And we couldn't really get a clear answer from Cleveland Police. You know, it was basically, I don't know. To their credit, they really decided to find out, and they started a project to count them all. And they had to sort through thousands of kits and other pieces of evidence in their evidence room. What they found was that there was about 4,000 that had never been tested.
MCEVERS: Why hadn't they tested 4,000 rape kits?
DISSELL: DNA testing became more widely available in the early '90s but that doesn't mean that every state or every police department had a method for getting that testing done. It was quite expensive in the beginning. And so the investigations themselves really were not all that extensive.
MCEVERS: These untested kits, some of them are very old - you know, 20 years old, some of these cases - how is it that investigators are still able to test them?
DISSELL: So long as they're kept in a cool, dry place, that DNA can be usable for quite a long time. You know, older DNA degrades a little bit, but the DNA tests that they have now are absolutely fabulous when it comes to taking a very small amount of DNA and being able to get a profile. And they've gotten quite a bit of results.
MCEVERS: So tell us about those results. I mean, how many prosecutions have they gotten so far?
DISSELL: From around the state, what they're finding with the thousands of kits that have been submitted, about a third of them get something called a hit or a DNA match. And so far, with a little over 1,000 kits tested from Cleveland, it's resulted in close to 80 indictments. And it was well over 20 percent of these cases that once they went back and got tested, we found out that the suspect wasn't just indicated in one rape but in multiple rapes.
MCEVERS: Cleveland is just one example of these backlog cases, thousands of cases. Like you said, this is happening in other cities. How many, in your estimation, of these untested rape kits are there across America?
DISSELL: The best estimate that I've seen that's used at this point by the federal government is about 400,000. And it's different all across the board. You know, in Houston, they had, you know, more than 8,000. In Detroit, they had 11,000. So we're looking at the big cities, but it's really hard to get a count in all the small areas and the rural areas of what they actually capped, what they threw away and what they might send in.
MCEVERS: Reporter Rachel Dissell. She and her colleague broke this story at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. As the cases get solved, Rachel and her colleague, as well as prosecutors and detectives, are finding themselves in the difficult position of knocking on the doors of rape victims and asking them to talk about horrific things. One of these women is Allyssa Allison. She was raped back in 1993. But her kit was never tested. She says she even told police she knew who her rapist was. Even though he was hiding his face, she was sure it was her landlord.
ALLYSSA ALLISON: I had a gut feeling. Everything was pointing that way because he just knew too much about the things that were wrong with my apartment.
MCEVERS: Like the broken window in the bathroom the rapist used to break in.
ALLISON: Because I had told him numerous times that that needed to be fixed. And he never fixed it.
MCEVERS: Fast forward 20 years to this past summer and Allyssa gets a knock on the door from a female detective.
ALLISON: I wasn't very nice, to be honest. She's like, I really have to talk to you. And I was like, I'm not ready to talk. I don't know what you - what are you hear for. And she's like, well, this is important.
MCEVERS: The detective eventually left but later called Allyssa on the phone.
ALLISON: Well, I'm calling in regards to you being a victim in 1993. And then I had said, are you talking about my rape? And she had said, yes. And literally, my jaw did drop, literally. I mean, it just - my mouth got really wide open and I just - it was very surreal because I kind of knew where the conversation was going to go. I said, well, did you find him? And she's like, no, but we do have something called a possible hit, a DNA hit.
MCEVERS: That means police had finally tested Allyssa's rape kit and matched the DNA of her rapist to the DNA of the son of the landlord. It was a positive ID.
ALLISON: I think I had said over the phone to her, I knew it. I knew it. You know, and 20 years ago, the police didn't want to listen to me.
MCEVERS: It turns out the landlord had raped again, including a woman who lived in Allyssa's building complex. That news was not easy for Allyssa to hear.
ALLISON: And that's the part that really kind of gets me sick, literally makes me nauseous is the fact that he got away with doing this after he did this to me. I mean, so far, I think we've got three other victims. I don't like that word. I'm going to say survivors. But who knows? There might be others. And that's the part that really gets to me. That breaks my heart.
MCEVERS: It was too late to prosecute the landlord. He died in 2005. Allyssa had been keeping a picture of him from his obituary in the newspaper. So once the case was solved, what did you do with that picture?
ALLISON: I punched it really hard, like, many times with my fist. I think, like I said, the part that gets to me most was that he had did this to other people. I don't - oh, I just - I just literally punched the hell out of the paper. So that's what I did.
MCEVERS: Is there any solace right now for you?
ALLISON: It's closure. I just wish that I would've been taken seriously 20 years ago.
MCEVERS: Allyssa Allison told us there is one thing that gives her solace - knowing she doesn't have to be afraid of that landlord anymore.
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