Rape Victims Denied Justice in Detroit Rape Kit Scandal
"Nearly five years after the discovery of 11,000 abandoned rape evidence kits in a Detroit police warehouse sparked outrage, only about 2,000 of the kits have undergone DNA testing, allowing serial rapists to remain free and in some cases commit more attacks.
All the kits are finally expected to get tested this year because the state Legislature appropriated $4 million to send them to private labs.
As important as the DNA is, testing alone is only a part of the equation in getting justice for the hundreds of people who have been victimized and getting dangerous sexual predators off the streets. Testing on the kits has already produced more than 500 hits with named suspects on a national DNA database, but police and prosecutors haven’t even begun to follow up on more than 150 of those leads.
The reasons for the delays are varied. Only on TV crime shows can investigators get a DNA hit and rush out and charge a suspect, officials say. In real life, and particularly in cases dating back a decade or more — as many of the thousands of discovered rape kits are — once evidence is tested, victims must be found, witnesses must be interviewed or re-interviewed, and old police files must be located or reconstructed.
Further complicating matters in the Detroit rape cases has been a lack of resources — money, as well as police, prosecutors and investigators — a lack of communication and coordination among the investigating agencies, and a loss of trust among victims in the agencies that seemingly mishandled their cases, allowing several attackers to victimize others.
Serial rapists such as DeShawn Starks — who a Free Press investigation shows was paroled in March 2013 after a nine-year stint in prison, despite multiple DNA results linking him to rapes, and who is now a suspect in a 2013 Detroit homicide committed soon after his release — continue to fall through the cracks.
[']I feel like they could have did more,['] said a 34-year-old Ohio woman assaulted by Starks in Detroit in 2003. The Free Press does not publish the names of people who were sexually assaulted.
Last month, more than a decade after the crime that still haunts her, the woman listened by telephone as Starks was sentenced by a Wayne County Circuit Court judge to serve 45-90 years in prison for her assault and others.
And there’s the case of Eric Eugene Wilkes.
According to the prosecutor’s office, on June 21, 2006, Wilkes pretended to be an undercover police officer and offered a deaf woman, waiting at a bus stop, a ride home. She accepted and Wilkes drove her to St. Aubin and Mack in Detroit, where he raped her, tried to clean her to destroy evidence and then let her go, prosecutors said.
The woman went to a hospital and a rape kit was collected — but it was not tested for six years.
Once the kit was finally tested, it linked Wilkes to several other rape cases, according to the prosecutor’s office. He was accused of raping a 35-year-old woman on Aug. 14, 2011; a 30-year-old woman on Aug. 25, 2011; and a 20-year-old woman on Dec. 13, 2011.
Wilkes is now serving a sentence of 8-30 years.
'OK, Now what?'
The 7,400 rape kits recently sent to private labs are expected to produce as many as 2,000 more hits on the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, creating a massive volume of follow-up work metro Detroit officials are ill-equipped to handle.
[']The pile is going to get higher and higher, deeper and deeper,['] said Rebecca Campbell, a psychology professor at Michigan State University who was hired by the National Institute of Justice to evaluate how the Detroit rape kits were handled.
[']So much of the push at the national level has been test them, test them, test them,['] Campbell said. [']OK, now what? We need to investigate and prosecute.[']
The problem in Detroit is aggravated because the Detroit Police Department, which mishandled the rape kits to begin with, wants to help clear the backlog, but Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy doesn’t want them involved. She says rape victims whose kits were lost don’t trust the DPD and that makes their work counterproductive.
Worthy’s office is in line for a share of the $35 million in rape kit backlog relief money President Barack Obama announced in his recent budget, and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office has also promised her money to help with the rape kit investigations. But Worthy couldn’t say recently how much additional help she needs to handle the extra work, let alone how much she is likely to get.
The 2,000 kits tested so far were done in two batches. Detroit Police helped investigate the first 400 randomly selected kits, under Project 400. Worthy obtained a National Institute of Justice grant to work on the next 1,600 and shut the DPD out, instead using investigators in her office.
The two agencies disagree about the success of the Project 400 work. Detroit police say they requested warrants on 66 cases, Worthy’s office approved only 28 of those warrants, and 18 cases remain under investigation. Worthy’s office says Detroit police work produced only 16 warrant requests and four convictions, though five warrants are pending and two cases are currently being prosecuted.
As results come back from the 7,400 kits sent to private labs, [']the Detroit Police Department, with the assistance of the Michigan State Police, is thoroughly investigating those cases as expeditiously as possible to remove any violent predators from our streets,['] former Detroit police spokesman Rodney Johnson, who is no longer with the department, told the Free Press in March.
Worthy says Detroit police need to [']finish their original commitment,['] to Project 400 where follow-up has been very low.
[']They need to concentrate on that right now,['] she said. [']We need to concentrate on the others.[']
Worthy’s work on the rape kits, particularly in light of the lack of resources in cash-strapped Detroit and Wayne County, has been praised by both Campbell and the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national group that advocates for sexual assault victims.
Detroit is not alone in having a huge backlog of untested rape kits. The cities of Los Angeles and Memphis and the states of Texas and Illinois have also faced backlogs of thousands of untested kits and Wayne County is in some ways considered a model for its methods in tackling the problem, said Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy at the Joyful Heart.
As for the pace of the work, [']I think it’s pretty darn speedy in Detroit, relative to what I’ve seen nationally,[']said Campbell.
But neither the police nor the prosecutor’s office appears blameless in the case of DeShawn Starks, who was sentenced to prison after pleading no contest to three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
For years, despite DNA hits linking Starks to sexual assaults committed in 2003, authorities neglected to issue warrants on him as he sat in prison on unrelated convictions.
Detroit police admit they dropped the ball in 2005 by failing to request warrants for Starks, who by then was serving time for home invasion and weapons charges.
But Worthy’s office confirms they were notified in July 2012 that testing on the old rape kits linked Starks, then still in prison, to the 2003 sexual assault of the Ohio woman interviewed by the Free Press.
Starks wasn’t charged with that rape and other 2003 sex crimes until August, about five months after he was paroled.
Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said if the agency had been notified that Starks was a suspect in sexual assaults, that information would have reached the parole board.
[']Certainly felony warrants, felony suspect information is something that they’re made aware of and they take into consideration before releasing somebody,['] Marlan said.
Spokeswoman Maria Miller acknowledged the prosecutor’s office did not notify the corrections department. She said a hit on the national DNA database is [']an investigatory tool and only that,['] pending further work.
[']The evidence must be investigated,['] she said. [']You cannot assume that he committed a crime based on the hits.[']
That same day Starks was arrested in August, a Detroit homicide detective told his parole agent that Starks also was being investigated in connection with a killing and sexual assault earlier that month, Marlan said.
Detroit police confirmed Starks is a suspect in the Aug. 3 killing of a 29-year-old woman, whose body was found in a Detroit apartment after a fire raged through the building. Detroit police submitted a warrant request for a homicide charge against Starks in the last couple of weeks and await an answer from Worthy’s office, Woody said Friday.
Miller could not confirm Friday that the warrant request had been received.
The slow police work and prosecution is upsetting to Starks’ Ohio victim, who was in Detroit dancing at a strip club the night she was assaulted in July 2003.
[']Maybe it was like, ‘OK, that’s something that happened to you because that’s the situation you put yourself in,’ ['] said the woman. [']I feel like they could have did more.[']
She said she was at her car, smoking, when a man approached her asking for a lighter. She said she got the lighter from the car and [']by the time I turned around, he had the gun and told me to get in the car.[']
The woman said Starks made her perform a sexual act in the vehicle as he drove her to a wooded area, where he ordered her to strip and raped her. She said he left her naked in the woods.
Once he drove away, she started running.
[']I was, like, really terrified,['] the woman said. [']I was crying the whole time.[']
According to the prosecutor’s office, by the time they sought the woman’s case file in 2013, police were unable to find it.
The woman, who said she also was sexually assaulted as a child, said the rape in Detroit has had a lingering impact on her life.
[']With me, I have my guard up a lot,['] she said.
She wants Starks locked up for life.
The rapes, she said, are [']something we’re going to have to live with for the rest of our lives.[']"