The Mobile Police Department (MPD) is wrapping up the tail end of a multi-million-dollar grant program that funded the testing of hundreds of old sexual assault kits and helped establish new facilities and procedures that will assist investigations of similar crimes in the future.
Since 2015, MPD and 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 through the U.S. Department of Justice.
The grants, at least initially, were meant to help police departments 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.
After an initial review ofMPD’s evidence locker, there were somewhere around 1,400 kits that were identified as needing to be tested or retested. However, Lt. Matthew James said the term “backlog” gives the impression that all of those kits were never examined at all, which he said isn’t necessarily the case.
“DNA testing kind of started evolving in the late 1990s, but our current techniques in Alabama date back to 2005,” James told Lagniappe. “So, anything prior to that was also considered ‘untested’ in terms of the grant, even though it may have been tested to the fullest extent possible at the time.”
Working with its partnering agencies, MPD identified 757 kits that were submitted to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences to be tested or retested to look for any matches that might be present in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) maintained by the FBI.
After years of testing and waiting on results, James said those efforts led to 148 CODIS hits — meaning a sample matched to a known suspect, multiple suspects or to another case where DNA was collected.
After further investigation, nine of those 148 cases were determined to have stemmed from a consensual sexual encounter between the suspect and alleged victim. In all, of the 139 identified sexual assault cases that had matches to DNA in the CODIS system, 104 have since been closed with varying outcomes.
Roughly 19 cases were closed because the suspects identified were either already in jail or had died. Another 14 cases involved victims who have died since their assaults were reported. In addition, James said the vast majority of the 66 victims MPD was able to contact declined to move forward with charges.
“You’re contacting somebody with information on something traumatic that happened to them 20 years ago and asking if they want to talk about it. That opens up a lot of old wounds for some people,” James said. “In some cases, they may feel like they were treated poorly by the police back then and don’t trust the system now. Others said they appreciated us taking another look at it, but they just weren’t ready to move forward. It’s a big step to take.”
So far, the testing of the old sexual assault kits has led to arrests over four assaults that were orginially reported in the 1980s and 1990s. According to James, there are around six other cases that are potentially moving toward prosecution.
Those charged so far include 63-year-old Lorenzo Green, who is accused of breaking into a home and sexually assaulting a woman in front of her children in 1997, Roderick Lee Williams and Frederick Antoine Tate — all three of whom are currently awaiting trial without bond in Mobile County Metro Jail.
The fourth case was filed against Timothy Robinson, 47, but his charge of allegedly raping a 3-year-old girl was dismissed over a technicality in the law because it occurred when he was juvenile. Prosecutors have said he might have been convicted at the time had the victim’s family cooperated.
While the number of arrests may seem low, James said it was important to remember 109 cases were formally closed that had previously gone unsolved for years and others might have been as well if victims were willing to move forward. He said it may still have provided closure for those victims.
As a result of the SAKI grants, MPD handles all sex crimes and all crimes involving juvenile victims under the unified Special Victims Unit (SVU) — the first of its kind in Mobile.
“What we’ve learned from this is that it’s difficult for someone to shift from a more victim-centered approach when investigating a sexual assault and understanding trauma associated with that type of crime and go back to dealing with a regular assault,” James said. “You want to use trauma-informed care and be aware of how trauma, especially trauma from sexual assault, can impact victims.”
James said similar changes to how sex crimes are investigated and prosecuted have been occurring in other areas of law enforcement in Alabama. He noted changes in state law last year that eliminated the requirement victims claiming sexual assault prove they showed “some kind of earnest resistance.”
“There’s science behind why a victim may not resist, and that’s allowed us to examine things like the surrounding environment or the physical size of a suspect and victim and their ability to make decisions,” he said. “That has helped bring Alabama a little more in line with what modern research shows.”
Asked about the program, James also noted the SAKI grants MPD received were multi-faceted and were intended to improve future sexual assault investigations as much as examine ones from the past.
Funding in 2016 helped improve the storage of physical evidence like sexual assault kits and the biggest chunk of the funding — around $1.9 million — was used to establish the Family Justice Center where SVU investigators work today.
The Family Justice Center essentially took the same concept used at Mobile’s Child Advocay Center — putting investigators, counselors and other resources for victims under one roof outside the police station — and is utilizing it for adult victims of sexual assault.
He said changes in the way MPD investigates reports of sexual assault are also likely to have ripple effects for years to come because SAKI funding received in 2019 has also provided opportunities for MPD to share its knowledge and help train other, smaller agencies throughout the region.
“This is really putting Mobile ahead of the curve with regards to how these cases are handled by investigators,” he added. “And all of the training we’re doing, it’s also being done around the country. In the next few years, I predict this will be standard for sexual assault investigations.”
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).