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The Case for Clearing the Rape Kit Backlog

Thirty years ago, I was the victim of a violent crime I did not expect to survive. Two men came through my window. They had a knife. I was blindfolded and tied up with a phone cord. It was terrifying and dehumanizing, and I probably survived because the blindfold kept me from identifying them. After ransacking the apartment and raping me repeatedly, they disappeared into the night.

I was left torn and bitten, so I sought treatment at the hospital where I had a rape kit examination conducted. Two detectives interviewed me once, but there was no follow-up. At the time, it didn’t matter that it seemed there was little effort to solve my case. It felt irrelevant to the monumental task of trying to pick up the pieces of my life. But later, much later, it mattered. It mattered a lot.

CAMPUS SEX ASSAULT EXAMS

I closed a chapter this month on an almost 10-year search for my rape kit and the information it might have contained. The information rape kits hold reaches far beyond whether prosecution is still possible. Had the kit been found and the DNA tested, I might know who my attackers were, what happened to them, or whether they were in jail for other crimes. Why does this matter to me, and what would it mean three decades later? Why are we all hearing so much more about this thing called the rape kit backlog?


A few years ago, I was invited to Washington D.C. to be part of a focus group meant to advise cities beginning to address their backlog – 10,000 plus untested in Detroit alone. They hoped to understand what it might be like for someone to hear decades later that their rape kit had finally been tested and their rapist identified. What information might people need to prepare themselves? How would they be informed? Would it open up wounds that might have healed?

We were chosen because delayed rape kit testing had extraordinarily impacted us. In almost every case but mine, the identity of the rapist had been discovered when kits were taken off shelves and run through the national DNA database years later. Their stories were some of the worst I had ever heard and I remember feeling shocked on the one hand, but also so tremendously happy to have found my peer group. I was no longer alone.

In many cases, rapists had committed numerous subsequent crimes that could have been prevented had the kits been tested sooner. The investigations were also traumatic – victims were disbelieved, some cases even closed within weeks.

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In 2007, the Boston Globe reported that there were 6,000 plus untested rape kits “found” in the State Crime Lab, dating as far back as the mid 1980s. I wondered, could my kit be there? Is that why I never heard from the police?

During my multi-year search, I was told that my kit was definitely not in the backlog since the Boston Crime lab was up to date with testing. Nevertheless, when I asked whether mine was ever tested, I was told it was missing.

Along my journey, there were many dismissive comments from people who were supposed to enforce the law and protect victims. I was told that since they couldn’t test for DNA until the mid-1990s and the statute of limitations would have passed, my kit wouldn’t have been a priority.

I thought about stopping my search, but then I would think about my peer group – hearing their stories and the years they waited for a speck of information. I saw how that pain turned a slight corner when their kits were tested and their rapists identified. It meant so much to them that their attackers were in jail or that they could testify in current rape trials or sentencing hearings; knowing that their attackers couldn’t hurt them or anyone else again; knowing their names.

I admit I felt a tad jealous of my newfound friends. They hadn’t healed completely either, but they had that one little bit of peace, and I wanted it too. So I kept looking.

This week it was finally confirmed that my kit was most certainly thrown away and the available evidence in my file yielded no usable information to identify my attackers. I’m at the end of a long road, but I want the journey to mean something. Victims deserve to have their crimes attended to for so many reasons.

Michelle with her daughter

Michelle with her daughter

Conviction rates in NYC for rapes are higher than any other city because they test all rape kits now. Significant numbers of serial rapists have been identified now that Detroit is going through its backlog. Same in Dallas. Same in Memphis. Same in Houston. In Cleveland last year, a mother was told the identity of the man who had raped and murdered her daughter 29 years ago after thousands of backlogged kits were tested.

The rape kit backlog is emblematic of what we mean when we say “rape culture” and I am hoping to give it a face. Rape is the most underreported felony, the least successfully prosecuted, yet it changes victim’s lives forever. The implications of ignoring DNA evidence are simply staggering. Let’s work to clear warehouses across the country of backlogged kits, and begin to change the way we respond to victims of this violent felony. It’s a place to start.

About the blogger:
 Michelle Bowdler is the Senior Director of Health & Wellness at Tufts University, where part of her role involves oversight of sexual assault prevention and education and clinical response efforts. She has been involved in advocacy work on the rape kit backlog issue and is currently an Advocacy Partner for the Rape Kit Action Project, a national effort among RAINN, Natasha’s Justice Project and the National Center for Victims of Crime to educate the public on the impact of delayed rape kit testing.

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