CLEVELAND — Testing rape kits may be the law in Ohio. But following up on the results of those tests is not.

Outside of Cleveland, which has logged convictions in 382 rape kit cases, only a few dozen other cases across the state have made it to a courtroom.

A survey of police agencies, conducted by The Plain Dealer and community volunteers, found that in many cases, police departments and sheriff’s office are not reinvestigating thousands of older cases tested in recent years, even when they get DNA results.

Agencies that have followed up cases say victims are often reluctant to have their cases reopened, or recant allegations, if they can locate them at all. When police do have a victim willing to cooperate, prosecutors often decline to file charges or present the case to a grand jury.

The Plain Dealer, with the help of more than 100 community volunteers, attempted to survey all 294 law enforcement agencies that sent in rape kits for testing as part of the Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative, which kicked off in late 2011 when Attorney General Mike DeWine issued an “open call” for the more than 800 law enforcement agencies in Ohio to send any kits that had not previously been tested for DNA.

Testing became mandatory in 2015. In February, the attorney general’s office announced that state labs had completed testing on 13,931 kits, yielding 5,052 hits on CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, as of Sept. 18.

A total of 151 agencies responded to The Plain Dealer’s 25-question survey or provided information to reporters who collaborated in reporting this story. The agencies surveyed contributed 6,830, about half, of the rape kits submitted statewide for testing.

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Finding a DNA profile in a rape kit doesn’t mean a case is solved. It’s a starting point for an investigation, one that involves tracking down a victim, potential suspects, old police reports and medical records.

A DNA hit might provide the name of a potential suspect, based on a criminal profile collected by law enforcement after an arrest for a felony or a past conviction. Or, it might provide a link to another unsolved case where the lab found the same DNA profile of an unknown person.

Our survey revealed that:

• Sixty-four, or less than half, of the agencies that responded said they had started reinvestigating cases.

• If an agency received DNA results, they were more likely to reopen the case, with 57 of 110 of those departments, a little more than half, taking another look at the old cases.

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• Seventy percent of the departments that are reinvestigating “agreed” or “strongly agreed” that they had enough personnel to handle the investigations and even more, 81 percent, of those that decided not to follow up had no staffing concerns.

The survey also revealed that not all departments followed the 2015 mandatory testing law.

About 15 percent of departments that responded said that they picked which kits to send and didn’t send ones from cases where victims had previously declined to prosecute, cases that had already been prosecuted or kits connected to cases where a suspect’s identity was known to police.

Following up

So why did some departments decide not to reinvestigate?

The most common reasons departments did cite were:

• Victims declined to cooperate or prosecute after the original report was made.

• There was a determination that the victim lied about some aspect of the rape to police or the original report was false.

• Testing results confirmed the identity of a suspect already known to police.

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Ohio lawmakers are likely to revisit the issue of whether to add to the law that requires mandatory testing of rape kits new provisions that would electronically track the status of the kits and allow victims to access the information.

DeWine has promoted the creation of such a system, which exists in several other states. He recently appointed an advisory committee to look at how a similar system in Ohio might work.

“If it isn’t mandatory, it won’t happen,” said Rosa Beltre, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, who sits on the committee. “We need to ask, ‘How can we make sure survivors are believed and responded to the right way, whether they live in a city or a rural area.”

Inconsistent investigation

Departments that did decide to re-investigate DNA results often did so in very different ways.

Some decided to look into every hit or DNA match. Others decided to reopen only “stranger” cases.

Barberton police officer Bill Pfieffer said his department submitted 52 rape kits dating back to 1999 for testing.

Pfeiffer, who has been with the department for 35 years, said the 26 results showing hits or matches in CODIS “didn’t benefit us or our victims” because the positive matches were not a surprise; the suspects were already known, Pfeiffer told the Akron Beacon Journal.

The cases, he said, were ones where the victim reported being raped and the suspect said it wasn’t rape, it was consensual sex. The department had decided at the time there wasn’t enough evidence to prosecute.

If Barberton received any hits that identified a new suspect, Pfeiffer said the cases would have been pursued.

“We’re always looking for new evidence,” he said.

Recent research at the Begun Center shows that rapists are far more likely than previously believed to “cross over” and target both people they know and strangers, said Rachel Lovell, a senior researcher at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at Case Western Reserve University.

Sexual assault evidence should be tested in all cases in which it’s collected, Lovell said, because it allows for the rapes to link to each other.

At least 313 forensic DNA profiles found while testing the older rape kits belonged to serial offenders — defined as three or more offenses — that connected to 1,175 crimes, most of which were sexual assaults, according to BCI.

Law enforcement also needs to follow up on those connections, and they should start by examining the suspect as thoroughly as possible, and not only when the victim has agreed to prosecute, Lovell said.

The criminal justice process of reporting a rape and going to court is not going to be the path all survivors choose, and that needs to be acknowledged and understood, said Beltre from the Ohio Alliance.

Survivors shouldn’t feel forced to comply, she said. But connections with community-based agencies are essential to creating a better environment for making these decisions.

Working through the backlog of older investigations and testing results provides law enforcement with an opportunity to look at the past and to keep what seemed to work and change what wasn’t, said Lovell, the Begun researcher.

The willingness to change the way cases are investigated could prevent rapes and lead to safer communities, she said.

Seeking answers

In Cuyahoga County, that required buy-in and a close collaboration by police, prosecutors, victim advocates, the crime lab and the medical community that didn’t previously exist.

That’s what Akron hopes to replicate.

The department recognized it needed to act differently when the DNA results started trickling in from the 1,432 rape kits and 390 additional older or current kits sent for testing. It now has received 850 DNA hits, matches or profiles that could be useful to solve rape cases.

The DNA also linked 160 offenders to 392 cases, meaning there were many potential repeat offenders — some still on the streets and others behind bars.

Though Akron is Ohio’s fifth-largest city, with just shy of 200,000 residents, it doesn’t have a sex crimes unit. Rape cases are handled by the same detectives who investigate murders and robberies.

At first, Detective Bertina King was assigned the task of investigating the cases alone.

Her work already has led to one conviction. In 2016, Efrem Johnson was sentenced to 28 years in prison for raping and beating a woman he lured into the woods in the Sherbondy Hill neighborhood in 2000.

King wanted to do the work in a way that would maximize the chances of putting rapists like that away and safeguard against retraumatizing victims.

She traveled to Detroit and Cuyahoga County to learn from officials who had already gone through mountains of cases.

Then, she and others applied for, and in October found out they received, a $991,582 federal grant from the U.S. Justice Department to launch a temporary, specialized unit to reinvestigate the cases, which date back to 1998.

The unit will include three full-time investigators, including King, a Summit County prosecutor, a victim advocate and the part-time work of an administrative assistant.

The grant money also will pay for software to digitally house entire case files in one place, along with a designated telephone hotline for victims working with investigators and for those who haven’t been contacted but want to know the status of their case.

The day after news broke that Akron landed the grant, King said she had already fielded three calls from people who wanted to know if their sexual assault cases would be reopened.

 

Beacon Journal staff writers Stephanie Warsmith and Amanda Garrett contributed to this report.