Lt. Joseph Rose works at the identification unit of the Mobile Police Department, but for the past five years he has used his spare time to detail and document the information contained in more than 1,800 sexual assault kits (SAKs) that have accumulated over several decades.
Earlier this year, through a partnership with the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office, the University of South Alabama and Lifelines Family Counseling Center, the MPD received a $828,000 federal grant to help take Rose’s work to the next level.
SAKs in the MPD evidence room contain samples obtained from medical examinations performed on the victims of sexual assault. Provided there was enough to sample at the time the examination, they also may include the DNA of the perpetrator.
The evidence will be tested against the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which today contains more than 11 million DNA samples from criminals, suspects and arrested persons across the country with 229,415 compiled in Alabama alone.
However, the CODIS was not always so large. As recently as 2007, the system only contained about half as many profiles, but legislation in the early 2000s expanded the scope of mandatory DNA collection for offenders.
“Over the years, the CODIS database has grown tremendously,” Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said. “Over time, the legislature passed laws requiring prisoners to subject themselves to a test swab, as well as those on probation and other offenders in several different categories.”
Additionally, the technology enabling DNA testing has improved greatly over the last decade. According to Lt. Scott Congleton, who oversees the MPD’s sex crime unit, genetic information that once required a vial of blood can now be discovered with much smaller samples.
“You can get trace evidence from any type of crime,” Congleton said. “You can get a sample from blood or any kind of fluid — cigarette butts or chewing gum. We’ve gotten hits off of sweat stains from a baseball cap or a bandana, and they search it along with everything else to try and identify an individual.”
Rich said the MPD’s looming pile of kits wound up in storage because their cases went cold, not because of “anything negative.” Now, the growth of the CODIS database and advances in technology make the hundreds of backlogged SAKs — even those that have been tested in the past — potential evidence once again.
“A lot of people hear this and ask, ‘why have these kits been sitting around?’ Well, they’ve been sitting around because we’ve had nothing to test them against,” she explained. “If we had a suspected perpetrator, we would take the appropriate measure to get a warrant, get a sample and then test the sample against the rape kit. When there’s no known suspect, all you can do is compare with the CODIS database.”
In Alabama, the expanded system has already assisted in more than 6,000 investigations. The CODIS has also been pivotal in independent MPD investigations, leading to at least one cold-case arrest.
In 2011, Willie Kevin Williams was arrested after a fingerprint found at the scene of a 1993 rape and kidnapping registered in the CODIS database. It also found a DNA match from samples taken from the victim that had been stored in a SAK for almost 20 years after the attack.
“Willie Williams was sort of our test case, and I can tell you, when Lt. Rose and I started working on it we found it was very time consuming,” Congleton said. “It took us eight to nine months to get from the infancy of that case to the time of the indictment.”
According to Congleton, the CODIS built the case leading to Williams’ conviction. He’s currently serving three life sentences.
In another example, Ralph Edward Bartlett was arrested in April and charged with a rape reported in 1994. After a second examination of the 20-year-old SAK last year, investigators found physical evidence collected from the original crime scene yielding a positive match to Bartlett.
Bartlett has a trial scheduled in February 2016, which is one of eight similar cases the department is currently investigating. Some defendants have yet to be indicted.
In addition, Rose said the results from another 17 SAK tests are currently pending. Those samples were collected between 1989 and 1997, according to the MPD.
“I don’t want to give people the impression that receiving this grant was a wake-up call for our department, because we’ve already been working on this stuff,” Rose said. “We obviously have to focus primarily on current cases and the stuff that’s still happening out there, but what this grant provides us is the ability to work extra time on these cases.”
Managing the backlog
That grant was made possible by the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, a federal partnership with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and New York City’s DA office that distributed $79 million to 21 law enforcement departments around the country in September.
A requirement of the grant is to spend the first six months cataloging existing SAKs so they can be placed in a usable database to benefit local authorities in Mobile and federal law enforcement across the country.
“We’re constructing a database that will allow the MPD to track rape kits in real time and provide some kind of statistical model,” Dr. S.E. Costanza with USA’s Center for Public Policy said. “But the ultimate goal is to eliminate the backlog and discover what cases led to successful arrests, identification or prosecution.”
The database will include a number of things from each reported assault, such as the race, age, sex and other relevant information of both the victim and the suspect, as well as information about the time, location and circumstances of the assaults.
It will also note which kits have already been tested. Most importantly, it will give authorities access to a more functional electronic database that will make tracking sexual assaults easier from the time they’re reported to the time they’re resolved or the case goes cold.
Laura Angle, a grants administrator with MPD, said Mobile had some leverage in its application because of the work Rose had already done compiling information from backlogged SAKs and a separate $1.5 million grant the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (ADFS) received two years in a row.
That grant, which also came from the DOJ, helps fund statewide SAK testing, which Angle said can cost between $500 to $1,000 per kit, depending on the provider. But managing the results can be a task even after the kits have been tested.
“You can’t dispose of the kits once a case is over,” Congleton said. “We don’t go into the kits and we don’t manipulate the kits. All we can do is evaluate each case because we’re bound by certain parameters through ADFS.”
According to Rose, working through the old SAKs requires reviewing every case for which a kit was collected. He said some cases may have already been resolved, while others haven’t, and some kits may need to be sent to the state for testing, while others won’t.
The information will be better managed once the department has a more efficient database, something Costanza said USA is excited to help facilitate.
“It’s very interesting — the idea that we’re looking at some of the cases going back to late ‘70s — whether they got prosecuted, whether there is a match or whether they even got processed,” he said. “We just hope the program we’re designing can help bring justice to people. It’s more about the victims getting some closure.”
Reducing the backlog
While the work to be done locally is substantial, it’s not a problem unique to Mobile. The grant funding was made available this year in response to a nationwide push to reform the way sexual assault evidence is collected, stored and managed.
Congleton said revisiting each case is the first step in determining whether a SAK from a cold case could benefit from testing or retesting against the CODIS system.
The MPD has had “hits” in the CODIS systems more than 1,000 times over the last 15 years, according to Rose, a number he said is likely higher than most departments in Alabama.
Though CODIS is used to identify suspects in all types of crimes, Congleton and Rich both said the DNA markers from the system are “crucial” pieces of evidence that can “make or break” a sexual assault case.
“It’s like a nail in the coffin,” Congleton said. “If you get a DNA hit back on [a suspect], it’s going to say within one quadrillionth of a percentage that it’s him. There’s not going to be a situation where it ‘possibly’ could be him. It’s him.”
Paying for the man-hours to review the backlog was the main function of the grant, but it also created the cold case sexual assault unit Congleton now supervises.
Currently, the unit is working to vet and prioritize each cold case. Prioritization can depend on whether or not the evidence collected in a SAK is sufficient enough to test, but Rose and Congleton also said the nature of the crime is also a significant factor.
“It’s really about the nature of the crime, and how serious it was, too,” Rose said. “If a guy’s breaking into elderly ladies’ houses and attacking them, that person needs to be off the street.”
But as the detectives learned revisiting Williams’ case, reopening a 20-year-old investigation can be time consuming for several reasons. Even with a hit in the CODIS system, detectives have to find and retest any suspect in order to confirm their DNA profile — something that usually requires a court order.
Even with the new evidence, Rich said prosecutors face several challenges in preparing for a trial that will rely on witnesses that could have relocated, or even died, since the crime occurred.
“After 25 years, where is the victim? Are they still alive, do they still live in the state and do they even want to prosecute?” Rich asked hypothetically. “It takes time, effort and money to locate people after a such a long period of time, and all of these things have to be done before we even send the kit to be retested.”
Working with victims past and present
According to Congleton, in the eight cold cases the department has currently reopened, all of the victims have been willing to move forward with prosecuting their assailants. He did admit approaching cold-case victims who’ve lived with a sexual assault for decades could be sensitive.
“You don’t want to do anything to jeopardize the case or to traumatize the victim. You have to give the victim that support,” he said. “Even with a lot of current cases, the victim doesn’t want to talk to law enforcement because they know what you’re going to talk about. You’re going to pry into the worst day of that person’s life.”
Lifelines Family Counseling Center has worked with local victims of sexual assault since 2002, when its Helpline and Rape Crisis Center was created. The center offers counseling, support groups and assistance with medical and court procedures to victims of sexual assault.
They also work toward victim advocacy, community education and law enforcement training. According to Angle, a portion of the funding in the recent grant will pay for Lifelines to provide additional training for MPD officers to effectively interact with victims of sexual assault.
As a part of their personal assistance to victims, the rape crisis center also acts as a liaison with law enforcement investigating their cases. Rich said Lifelines also typically makes first contact with victims in any cold case to ensure the experience isn’t as traumatic as it might otherwise be. Yet even with those precautions, the process can still be painful.
“I think it depends upon the victim, but you’re always running a huge risk of retraumatization,” Shawna Mayo, director of the Rape Crisis Center, said. “Ideally, all of them would be very excited and it would give them closure, but this is a trauma you will carry with you the rest of your life. It’s not like regular memory.”
Based on a 2003 study from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 5 percent of 9,691 sex offenders were arrested for another sex crime within three years of their release from prison. Mayo said those numbers lead many sexual assault victims to report their attackers, if not for themselves, for others who could be victimized.
“Most sexual assault victims, whether it’s been 20 years or 10 minutes, don’t report for themselves as much as they report to prevent it from happening to someone else,” she said. “Which is amazing, thinking of what happened to them. It’s sort of beautiful.”
The National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative only provides a three-year window to work through the backlog of SAKs, but as they did before, Angle said, the MPD plans to keep working through cases even after the grant period has passed.
She did say it’s possible the funds could be extended, but it would be contingent upon federal appropriations. Rich also said her office was prepared to prosecute any case with viable evidence, and said some of her office staff are already working “a tremendous amount of time” revisiting the old cases.
“To me, it doesn’t matter what the cost is, because we’re talking about someone who has been sexually assaulted,” Rich said. “I see crime. I don’t see anything else.”
Anyone with information on a recent or past sexual assault is encouraged to contact the MPD and Lt. Scott Congleton at 251-208-1804. The Rape Crisis Center can be reached 24 hours a day at 251-473-7273 or 1-800-718-7273.
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