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Reporting On Rape Kit Backlog Leads To New Law And Arrests In Ohio


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Many rapists who were never convicted might have been if only there had been follow-up on the evidence that was collected. When a woman is raped, she has the option of having a nurse collect forensic evidence in what's known as a rape kit, which includes evidence that might reveal the rapist's DNA.

My guest, Rachel Dissell, discovered that in her state, Ohio, thousands of rape kits, dating back to 1993, were being stored, untested, with no follow-up. Rapists who might've been convicted were free to assault other women. Dissell's investigation with her colleague Leila Atassi on sexual assaults and the backlog of rape kits led to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new kits be tested. Other states are starting to adopt similar laws and can learn from Ohio's experiences. Dissell has spent five years investigating sexual assaults and rape kits, and she isn't done yet. She is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Rachel Dissell, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a description of what a rape kit is because I think most people don't really know what's in it. And we can't understand its importance if we don't know what it is.

RACHEL DISSELL: Sure. Thank you, Terry. A rape is a lot of things. A rape kit is a way to collect forensic evidence after someone's been sexually assaulted, and it's also a way to provide medical attention to someone. It does both things. But at each step, they'll ask the person if they can collect evidence from different parts of their body - from underneath their fingernails, from their, you know, genitals, if they had been bitten or scratched or something that. That evidence is collected and put inside a box.

And during our reporting, you know, we looked at some of these boxes. They're may be about the size of a small pizza box. And inside there, you would find swabs. You could find a set of paperwork that'll have notes from the nurse to say where injuries may have been, if there were any, where fluids were collected from. And they'll all be inside that box. And after that collection is done, the police will come pick up that box and take it as evidence.

GROSS: How are rape kits used? How are they intended to function in tracking down rapists?

DISSELL: These kits that are collected - often when someone goes to the hospital and they're a victim of a sexual assault, the first question they're not asking them is do you want to prosecute this case? But what they're telling them is we want to be able to collect this evidence from your body because this is the only chance that we have to do so. If we don't do it now, we can't go back and do it later. So a lot of times, the forensic nurses will explain that to people and say, you don't have to make a decision about what we want to do with this now, but we want to collect this evidence.

And it's not an easy decision to make. The process - it can take between four and six hours. It's very invasive. The kit collection itself could be very traumatic. So that's all explained to the victim, but then afterwards, when they leave the hospital, what happens is a police department will come pick it up and take it as evidence.

Now, that's kind of where we get into the story we're talking about here - is whether the kit's tested or not. If the kit is tested, a lab can open it up. It can test the swabs. It can test the - someone's underwear - different materials to see if there is semen or other bodily fluids on there that could indicate who the attacker of this person might be.

GROSS: Now, when you started investigating the story of rape kits, you found that there were thousands of unopened, never-investigated rape kits sitting around. Just give us a sense of the extent of that.

DISSELL: Sure. So here in Cleveland, we started asking about rape kits in 2009 - the very end of 2009. A colleague of mine, Leila Atassi, and I had been looking into, in general, how Cleveland handled sexual assault cases. Just about a month earlier, there had been a really horrific case where a man named Anthony Sowell had killed 11 women and buried them in and around his house on Imperial Avenue, here in Cleveland. He had also raped several other ones that had escaped.

And so as we're finding out what went on in that story, how this guy was able to do this, one of our editors came to us and said, you know, we need to know. Everybody wants to know how this happened. So as we started to look into this, there were so many different facets as to how why women who made reports weren't believed, what happened with their reports, how many of their reports - the majority that were closed with only a cursory investigation.

And the rape kits was just - was just a part of it. And it was - it started out with a really simple question that we asked Cleveland police. You know, we sent them a public records request. It's kind of what reporters do. And we said, how many of these kits do you have, and how many have been tested? And what they told us initially was that they didn't know. You know, they didn't a keep a count - a running count of how many they had as evidence in their evidence rooms. And they didn't keep a count of how many had been tested, but they were going to start.

And so they started counting the kits. And we would check back with them. You know, we would take turns calling, sending e-mails. Have you counted the kits yet? How many kits do you have? And we were pretty consistent about it. We wanted to let them know that we were going to keep asking the questions until we got an answer. And about seven months later, they had counted about 6,125 kits, and about 2,000 of them had been tested. The rest of them had not.

GROSS: That's about 4,000 kits not tested.

DISSELL: Correct.

GROSS: So let's get back to this Anthony Sowell case. Two women who he had held captive managed to escape. They had been raped by him. Was there any rape kit testing done on them?

DISSELL: There was one woman who escaped from his house who did have a rape kit taken. She had it taken at a nearby hospital, and it was sent to a local suburban department. The suburban department did not send that kit for testing. They had some questions about the woman's story. They couldn't contact her. There was lots of reasons that they gave that they didn't test the kit.

But as part of our investigation, we looked into that case. And it was, you know, one of the many cases were other factors - you know, not money, not, you know, whether the victim wanted to report the case - many factors that came into play as to why departments chose not to test kits. And we started to kind of question those things because we kept hearing the same things over and over again, in terms of reasons not to test. But what we were seeing - and when we looked in other cases across the country and did research into this - was really what the power of DNA was.

And the power of DNA was that when you put it in - into these databases, you could often make connections that you previously couldn't make. Or cases that maybe didn't seem so strong would seem much stronger when you had a DNA connection to link several cases together. The Anthony Sowell was a little bit different because in yet another snafu, his DNA was never entered into criminal databases when he left prison. He had served 15 years in prison for another sexual assault.

GROSS: This was before killing these 11 women.

DISSELL: This was before killing these women. He served this 15 years in prison. And they were supposed to collect his DNA when he left prison, and it didn't get done.

GROSS: So what are some of the reasons why the Cleveland police had 4,000 rape kits backlogged that had gone uninvestigated.

DISSELL: So we sat down with the Cleveland police early on when we were trying to sort through this, and there were a lot of reasons. I mean, this is definitely a complicated issue. It would've been a lot easier to write stories if the answers were just they didn't do their job.

But these kits that we were looking at - they go back to 1993. And so in 1993, it was not common to forensically test kits like this. Often what they would do if they would test kits for biology. You know, is there semen here? Is there proof that there was a rape? They didn't do routine DNA testing. And in Ohio, they didn't even have a state lab that took DNA samples and put them into a database until 1998. So early on, I don't think people really understood the power of the DNA, and so there wasn't a lot of testing.

At the same time, when we would review the cases that went along with these kits - the actual reports that were taken - they got very little investigation. And one of the things that we really found is not all of them even needed DNA testing to be solved. What we most often found was that cases were closed within days or weeks. You know, detectives would say, we can't find the victim. We can't locate them. They don't want to corporate. We don't think they're credible. A lot of the victims whose cases didn't go forward and whose kits weren't tested were minorities. They were drug addicts. They had mental health issues - all kinds of things like that that just really made them the most vulnerable and the least likely to be believed.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Dissell. She's a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and she spent five years investigating the backlog of rape kits in Ohio. Her investigation helped lead to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new rape kits be tested. Other states are beginning to adapt similar laws. Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: We're having a technical problem, so we're going to continue the interview with Rachel Dissell momentarily. So forgive us for this. This kind of thing happens occasionally. So here's more of my interview with Rachel Dissell.

This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Rachel Dissell. She's a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. And when she was investigating sex crimes in Cleveland, she discovered that there were thousands of untested rape kits that the police had collected over the past couple of decades. And her investigation helped lead to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new rape kits be tested. So how did your investigation of these untested rape kits lead to a new law in Ohio?

DISSELL: Cleveland, after we started asking questions about rape kits and started writing stories - and we were writing a lot of stories. My colleague Leila Atassi and I together I think probably wrote more than 150 stories over a several-year period of time. We just kind of decided to hammer away at this issue. And one of the reasons that we did that was because when we started looking into the issue of sexual assault after the Anthony Sowell case, we ran across some stories written by our predecessors that talked about how rape was handled and some problems with it. And the stories had been written a decade ago. And we had a really good conversation, and we decided that we didn't want some other reporters, a decade from when we started, to read our stories and then be writing the same stories again. We wanted this to be the last time we had to have this conversation about why women were being raped and nothing was being done.

So we wrote a lot of stories, and some of those stories got noticed by Ohio's Attorney General, Mike DeWine. And so we talked with his folks. He really picked up on the issue. And in 2011, he kind of issued an open call to the entire state, and he said, I want all police departments to send me all rape kits old and new. We want to test them all. And he started really encouraging people to send rape kits in in any case except for ones where they really, really thought that no crime was committed. And that should be the very slim, slim margin.

And so there wasn't a law passed right away, but he started asking for those kits to be sent. And over the next, you know, two or three years, law enforcement across the state sent more than 9,000 kits to the state labs to be tested. During that time, there was several different laws proposed to try to address some of the problems, and then finally in December - last December 2014 - a law was passed that required all of the older kits that had not been sent to be sent in and all of the newer kits to be sent in within about 30 days or so of testing so that they could be tested and there would never be a backlog again.

GROSS: So now that the rape kits are actually being tested, what kind of information is coming out of that testing that is enabling law enforcement to track down rapists, even rapists who committed crimes years ago?

DISSELL: One of the things that we didn't think about when we first started talking about rape kit testing was what would happen after the rape kits were tested. And there wasn't a lot to look to for that. When the testing started, they ramped it up slowly, but the hits or the DNA matches in these cases just started pouring in. We didn't realize that there would be this secondary onslaught of investigations that needed to be done. You know, we were just thinking, test the kits; test the kits. And so as of now, here in Cuyahoga County where Cleveland's at, they've had to reinvestigate more than, you know, 2000 rapes so far based on the hits.

There's a task force that's comprised of the county prosecutors and the Cleveland police and the county sheriffs and some state agents, and right now today, they have 1,696 investigations in progress. They've already completed 906 of them. And I think the biggest surprise to all of us nobody - nobody foresaw this - was that 224 serial rapists or potential serial rapists have been identified. And that number, I think, really blew us away. We just didn't think that that was what would come out of this. I mean, we knew that the DNA could link cases together, but how many is still really a surprise to us.

And we've learned other things from the testing. I think there were - there was a thought, you know, among investigators before that if someone was going to rape strangers, that was who they were going to rape. They were going to snatch someone off the street. And if someone was going to rape acquaintances, they were, you know, going to pray on someone they knew or go into a bar and, you know, get someone drunk and rape them.

But what we found as these cases have been tested and linked together was that people were committing all different types of these crimes and not being caught, that there were so many chances before to link together these crimes, to prevent other rapes, that were not taken, you know, chances that were really missed opportunities. And so I think that's a big focus now, is trying to figure out what are the lessons from these cases that we can learn so that we don't miss the opportunities to prevent crimes like this.

GROSS: Are there other lessons that you think have been learned from investigating these rape kits?

DISSELL: Yeah. I think that one of the things that people really underestimated before was the amount of support that a victim or survivor of rape really needs so that they can go forward with a process like this. You know, in the past, when you talked to detectives that would work on cases before, they were completely overwhelmed. There's always very few detectives in the sex crimes unit, sometimes, you know, 11, 12, 13 of them handling hundreds of rape cases a year. And these victims had gone through a trauma. And the marching orders that these detectives had was to try to contact the victims once or twice, and if they didn't call back, then they would close the case.

And what were - what we hear from a lot of the victims was that, you know, in those first, initial days after they reported a sexual assault, they were just going through so much. They had so many emotions. They didn't know what they should do. They were traumatized. They didn't really have any support. So someone calling and just saying, you need to come downtown for an interview, that just was not going to work for them.

And so when I look at it, I think about it, you know - if the city of Cleveland or any other police department was running a business and nobody was coming, they would try to figure out what they were doing wrong so they could get people to come, but that is just not the way it worked with this. People just decided or assumed that these women who had gone through this process, who had, you know, laid on these tables, who had had this evidence collected from their body all of a sudden just decided to opt out. And you know, in some cases, that may be true. Someone may have made a choice to change their mind. But I think a lot of people just didn't know how to do it. They didn't know how to come in and go through this process, and they needed someone by their side to help explain it, to help - you know, sit through it with them because it was a very traumatic thing to go through. And you know, it still is for many of them today.

So I think that's what is being added in that was not added into the process before, you know? They're trying to have support and victim advocates on hand. They're trying to have places they can refer victims to where they can get help for the other problems that they have, for the - with family members trying to explain to them what happened. And I think that that's really making prosecuting the cases a little better the second time around.

GROSS: Rachel, can you tell us the story of one of the women who you interviewed after her rape kit was actually tested years after the sexual assault was committed?

DISSELL: One that really sticks with me is a woman named Allyssa Allison. And when I spoke to Allyssa, she was pretty frustrated because they had finally identified the man that raped her, and he was dead. And she was overjoyed that she no longer had to look over her shoulder, that she could kind of put this awful, awful incident of this man who broke into her house and drugged her and raped her kind of in the past. But yet, she didn't get to confront him. She didn't get to address him in court.

And for her, there was two things that were hard. One was that she had tried to tell the police that she thought the man who raped her was her landlord because of how he'd gotten into her house through a window that only this guy knew was broken. And they told her, no, no, you're wrong; you know, he's got an alibi, and it's not him. And she was pretty insistent about the fact there was a couple reason she thought it was him. And it turned out it was him. She had been right all along. And the hardest part for her, in our conversations when we talked, was that she found out that he also raped several other women, you know, before he died. He was a serial rapist. And that was so hard for her.

GROSS: He raped other women in that same apartment building.

DISSELL: Yeah. He raped another woman in the same building. And so that was so difficult for her, thinking, you know, what more could I have done to prevent this from happening to someone else? So I mean, these cases bring up such a swirl of emotions. I mean, there's just so much there.

And you know, as a reporter, that's difficult because, you know, we really thought, we're championing this. This is so great. But it's taken such an emotional toll on some of these women personally. And so for me and for my colleague Leila Atassi, we would talk about just the enormity of that, the enormity of how many cases - you know, we talk about Cleveland being 4,000 and Detroit being 11,000 and Houston being 6,000.

GROSS: Backlogged cases.

DISSELL: So many cases that - where kits weren't tested and so many women who, as these cities start test, are going to be getting these phone calls and getting these detectives knocking on their door and getting this trauma brought up again 20 years later, you know? They may not even want it.

GROSS: My guest is Rachel Dissell, a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. After a short break, we'll talk more, and we'll hear from actress and producer Elizabeth Banks who directed the new comedy film "Pitch Perfect 2." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Rachel Dissell, a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She's been covering sexual assaults and rape kits for the past five years. Rape kits contain forensic evidence collected from a victim's body after the attack. The evidence can be tested for DNA, which can help identify and prosecute the assailant. Dissell discovered that in Cleveland, as in many other places, thousands of rape kits collected over the years had been put in storage, untested. Her investigation led to a new law in Ohio mandating that old and new kits be tested.

The statute of limitations is 20 years. There's been a fight in Cleveland over whether to extend that in cases involving previously untested rape kits. What have been the arguments for and against extending the statute of limitations?

DISSELL: Yeah, so the statute of limitations is actually expected to be extended probably by the end of the month, if not early next month. And it's been an ongoing debate for about two years. And on one side of it, you have people who say it's very unfair that these kits are being tested and that we could get evidence of who committed a crime, but we can't prosecute them. It's unfair to the victims. It was not their choice to have their kits not tested.

On the other side of it, you might hear from some defense attorneys who say, is it really fair to be prosecuting someone 20 and 30 years after the fact? It's not the defendant's problem. It's not the suspect that made the police not test the kit, that made them not investigate the case, that made them not get the evidence. And how are they supposed to come up with witnesses or alibis 20 years after the fact, when people have died and memories have faded? So there's that part of it.

And then there's also some people that have argued that by extending a statute of limitations, you're making a disincentive for police to investigate cases swiftly and to test evidence swiftly. So that's kind of another part of the debate. But where the Ohio legislator has really landed was that they're going to extend the statute of limitations in Ohio by five years for all cases. So going forward, it'll be a 25-year statute of limitations. But in cases where there is DNA that's discovered that's an identified person that's an actual suspect - those cases will have a five-year window to be prosecuted. So once that DNA links to an actual person, the prosecutors will have five years.

GROSS: You write that some prosecutors are starting to prosecute John Does because of the statute of limitations. Why don't you explain that?

DISSELL: So in Ohio and in several other states, what people started to do and what prosecutors started to do was kind of a novel approach to these cases. They would have someone's DNA. So the kit would be processed. They would have someone's DNA profile, but they wouldn't know who the profile belonged to. It would just be kind of a series of letters and numbers that you get for a DNA profile - different markers that would show someone's unique profile.

And that person was unidentified because they weren't in the other part of the database that meant they had committed a crime or been arrested. Their DNA had been collected through a swab on their cheek or in prison. But they knew there was a pretty good chance that this was their suspect because they would go back and talk to the victim. It wouldn't be a husband. It wouldn't be someone else. They would always test and make sure that it wasn't that person first if there was another partner.

So what they would do is they would go to a grand jury, and they would ask the grand jury to indict that DNA profile. You know, they would say, we don't know this person is, but when we find out, we will replace the indictment with that person's name. And so in Cleveland now, they've done that, I think, more than 70 times. And what they do is they hope that that person will either commit another crime or that they'll get arrested, and then they'll figure out who they are. And that has happened in several cases.

GROSS: That also gets around the statute of limitations because you've started prosecuting before the statute of limitations runs out, even though you don't know the name and identity of the person you're prosecuting. You just know their DNA profile.

DISSELL: Yes. You can do that with an indictment, or you can also do that with something called a DNA warrant. So they can kind of issue a warrant for someone's arrest. But they've decided to go with the indictments because that's really in the public record, and it won't get lost, you know, if someone happens to get arrested. You know, you always hear about warrants. You know, they're not getting served. They're getting lost. So they decided to go with the indictment as the strongest way to have a record of that that person can be held accountable.

GROSS: So now that Ohio has a new law mandating the testing of rape kits, are other states looking at Ohio and trying to come up with similar laws?

DISSELL: Yeah, I think so. And here in Cuyahoga County, our prosecutor, Tim McGinty, has been pretty activist about this. He's flown to a couple places across the country, sent prosecutors to testify in other states. And so he's kind of sent people to kind of spread the message. You know, he likes to go around and talk about how these kits are a goldmine. He'll say over and over again this is a gold mine of information. You know, we can track down people. We can hold them accountable. And so I think that that is happening in more and more states. I think Illinois was one of the first ones to require it, but Ohio has really taken a front seat to figuring out not only how to require it, but how to follow through with it.

GROSS: Rachel, you've been writing about sex crimes for at least five years. What's the emotional impact on you of having covered the subject for so long?

DISSELL: The individual cases can be really tough to deal with. I mean, I remember at one point, I - I have a son who is four years old now. But at the - right when we were kind of at the height of doing this research, my colleague Leila Atassi and I were reading hundreds of rape reports. And I remember sitting on my couch, and I had a stack of them sitting on top of my belly. And my husband was really disturbed by this. He wanted me to stop just reading these all the time. He thought it would somehow have some type of effect on our child.

So there is that part of it. There's that weightiness to reading these. But at the same time, I think the hardest part is the volume. I struggled most with going how could thousands and thousands and thousands of cases just not be properly investigated? And then the, you know - the effect of that - the effect that there are so many of these women who were raped that did not have to be raped. You know, if their cases were properly investigated in the first place, that person would have been in prison. And they would not have been out there to attack somebody else. I think that's the hardest part. You just - you question how that could happen.

GROSS: The serial rapists...

DISSELL: Yeah. That's not the way we're supposed to operate. We're supposed to make sure that people are safe and taken care of. And this is what really bothers me - is that when you really looked into these cases, it's the most vulnerable women - you know, the ones who were minorities, who lived in poor neighborhoods, who had mental health problems, who had drug addictions - they were the ones being prayed on.

And nobody in society - not the police - nobody could step back and say these are the most vulnerable victims. And rapists - the serial rapists - they knew, and they benefited from it. You know, they really outsmarted everybody. They knew if they chose the most vulnerable women - the least likely to be believed - that they would never get caught. And I just don't know how that happened. How did we let them outsmart us for all that time?

GROSS: Rachel Dissell, thank you for your reporting, and thank you for talking with us about it.

DISSELL: Thanks.

GROSS: Rachel Dissell is a reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Coming up, actress and producer Elizabeth Banks, who directed "Pitch Perfect 2." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.