DNA evidence is tested ASAP after a murder, but between 180,000 and 400,000 forgotten rape kits are collecting dust in police evidence rooms nationwide, even though technology can easily link attackers — who are often strangers and serial rapists — to their crimes. So it's a gigantic step forward that the National Institute for Justice is helping Detroit analyze thousands of rape kits to determine which cases can still be taken to court, the best ways to protect victims, and how backlogs can be prevented in the future. The problem is that not all of the women involved necessarily want to remember traumatic events that took place decades ago, especially when there's no guarantee that their rapists will be brought to justice.
The AP interviewed a number of women about reopening their cases, and they had horrible stories to tell — not just about being kidnapped and raped repeatedly at knifepoint, but about the way police responded to their accusations at the time. "[My rape kit] was very impersonal," said Helena Lazaro, who was brutally attacked 15 years ago by a stranger at Los Angeles car wash. "The doctor disregarded my wishes and examined parts of my body I asked him not to. The police questioned me at the same time. They asked, `Why were you at the car wash at night? Are you sure you didn't know him? Are you sure you didn't want it?'" Lazaro tried to keep track of her case's status, but investigators stopped returning her calls. It took an advocacy group's help for Lazaro to learn that her rapist is now serving a 25-year sentence in Ohio for raping another women.
About 55 percent of victims never report being raped — why would you go through an embarrassing and emotionally difficult experience like Lazaro's if your rape kit is doomed to languish in a closet for decades? That's why the Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project's work is so crucial in terms of helping future victims achieve justice and move on. But when it comes to victims who have been forced to give up and move on on their own, things get more complicated. There's no guarantee these women will be able to prosecute their attackers even if the DNA matching is successful, since statutes of limitations often expire. Nevertheless, the Detroit project plans to contact all victims at some point. "You have to make sure the way that's done is appropriate; take into account the victim's physical needs, support needs, resources and health needs," said Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor who works with the project. "You're reopening an incredibly tragic event. You just can't knock on someone's door to do that."
Exactly. One victim, who now runs a rape advocacy program and saw her rapist get 25-50 years in jail thanks to DNA testing, still said she felt "re-victimized" when she learned that nothing had happened to her rape kit for nine years. But the Detroit project can't succeed without risking the revictimization of thousands of women — hopefully, the outcome will be well worth the additional pain.
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