After years of combing through cold case records, local authorities have secured the first conviction and sentence as a result of a federal program that helps test or retest hundreds of old sexual assault kits.
Since 2015, the Mobile Police Department (MPD) and other partnering agencies like the Mobile County District Attorney’s Office, the University of South Alabama and Lifelines Family Counseling Center have received over $4.6 million in Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grants from the Department of Justice.
The grants, at least initially, were meant to help investigators around the country sort through a growing backlog of untested or inadequately tested sexual assault kits that contained samples taken from reported victims — some of which were collected as far back as 1979. In Mobile, SAKI funds were later used to establish a Rape Crisis Center and overhaul MPD’s training and tactics for dealing with assault victims.
Through the SAKI grant, MPD has tested or retested hundreds of sexual assault kits using the latest technology and comparing the findings to DNA databases managed by state and federal authorities. After nearly five years, MPD investigators finished resting the kits in 2019.
Only 148 results matched a known suspect and many cases didn’t move forward because a suspect had died or because the victim didn’t want to pursue charges or testify about their previous assault. On July 14, though, evidence obtained from a sexual assault kit retested as part of the SAKI grant led to a man accused of raping an unknown woman in Mobile in 1997 being sentenced to decades in prison.
Speaking to Lagniappe, the MPD Special Victims Unit commander, Lt. Matthew James, said the DNA evidence in that case was absolutely critical to identifying 44-year-old Frederick Antoine Tate as a suspect and went a long way toward a jury of his peers convicting him of rape and sodomy.
“The DNA evidence was everything in this case. We had no suspect prior to that,” James said. “The victim was walking home from work down Broad Street and she was taken behind a vacant house at gunpoint and sexually assaulted. There were no witnesses, the investigation at the time didn’t turn up any leads, and it being in 1997, this was before the state’s current DNA technology was available.”
After an initial trial ended with a hung jury in 2019, a second group of jurors convicted Tate in February.
His sentencing was delayed several times due to disruptions caused by COVID-19, but Circuit Judge Jay York ultimately sentenced Tate to 22 years in state prison last week. District Attorney Ashley Rich told Lagniappe the result would have been impossible without funding from the SAKI grant.
“Rape cases are always difficult, and after so much time, this one was especially difficult, but we are so thankful that the jury saw the evidence and was able to bring closure to this victim,” Rich said. “We’re also thankful to have this grant to make sure we are able to test old sexual assault kits and try to get justice for victims of a sexual assault prior to modern DNA analysis. It’s just amazing how far that technology has come.”
Tate’s was the first conviction that has stemmed from the SAKI program, but two other men have been indicted as a result of the program, as well. Lorenzo Green, 64, is accused of breaking into a home and sexually assaulting a woman in 1997. Roderick Lee Williams was arrested in 2018 for allegedly kidnapping and sexually assaulting a girl in 1998. A fourth suspect’s case was dismissed on a technicality.
According to James, five other cold cases with new DNA evidence have already been turned over to the district attorney’s office to be reviewed and presented to a grand jury. However, like other proceedings in local courts, James said those cases have been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For a multimillion-dollar grant, nine arrests may not seem like a lot, but James said 109 other cases were formally closed that had previously gone unsolved for decades. The grants also helped MPD establish its first dedicated Special Victims Unit for adult and juvenile victims of sexual abuse and assault.
James said the program is as much about the future at MPD as it is about closing cases from the past.
“Our biggest takeaway from the SAKI initiative is what it did for us moving forward. We know what DNA is capable of now,” James said. “Our practices, from how we interview victims to how they’re viewed and the training of our investigators — all of that was funded from this grant. It has helped us move forward in the long run and will help us do more with our current and future investigations.”
Rich said she agreed the SAKI initiative has moved things in a positive direction. She also noted, just since Tate’s conviction earlier this year, her office has been contacted by two victims from cold cases reported in Mobile who’ve inquired about having their old sexual assault kits retested.
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