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Prosecutor leads effort to test long-abandoned rape kits, brings justice to victims

By Mario Garcia, Kristen Powers and Jessica Hopper
Rock Center

Wayne County, Mich., Prosecutor Kym Worthy has seen her share of grisly crime, but even she was shocked by a discovery in 2009 at a former police storage warehouse. There, stacks of dusty boxes were found on the shelves of the warehouse. The boxes contained thousands of untested rape kits, some decades old.

“What we were potentially looking at, at that time, was over 10,000 rape kits, representing over 10,000 cases where women had reported, whose lives and what had happened to them was sitting on a shelf and nobody cared. I was shocked, and I think I was kind of stunned -- and not too much stuns me,” Worthy told Kate Snow in an interview that aired Friday on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

Worthy and her team would ultimately discover 11,303 untested kits. Rape kits are what hospitals use to collect DNA evidence from a victim in hopes that police can test it and identify a rapist.  Victims have to undergo a thorough exam that can take hours. The DNA evidence is often the most important evidence used to convict in a rape case.

“To know that we had all of these potential victims sitting out there, all of them, mostly women, and nothing had been done, was just truly appalling,” Worthy said.

She is spearheading the fight to correct the injustice. Worthy said that what’s happening in her city is happening across the country.  From Chicago to Los Angeles to Houston, cities are grappling with thousands of untested rape kits.  Through a national grant, Worthy is attempting to set a protocol for how other states tackle backlogged rape kits.

To Learn More About the Detroit Rape Kit Initiative, Click Here to Visit the Detroit Crime Commission

The daughter of a West Point graduate, Worthy says she has always felt a sense of justice and morality.  As a lawyer, she’s fearlessly sought justice, taking on high-profile cases including the corruption case against former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. But perhaps her own traumatic experience has contributed to her drive. Worthy says that she was sexually assaulted while in law school but did not report her case.

Courtesy of Kym Worthy

Kym Worthy at her law school graduation.

“This may sound strange, but I think what happened to me in law school happened for a reason and kind of led me into what I’m doing now. I always felt that way. And I always felt that that was a part of what made me a very good prosecutor, and certainly that is part of everything that I do. But it wasn’t the driving force,” she said.

Worthy said her experience allows her to better identify with the women whose cases were left untouched for years, but ultimately her time as a prosecutor during Detroit’s tumultuous last decade sparked her determination.  Over the past decade, Detroit has dealt with a high crime rate, budget woes and corruption in both the police force and former Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's office.

“The fact that I was the first female assistant of [an] elected prosecutor here, the fact that I had been prosecuting rapes for 11 years, off and on for 11 years, and presided over many criminal sexual assault trials as well, as a judge, and then to see this happen in Wayne County, a county where we already have a crime problem that’s out of control, and then to have, to add this on top of the issues we had with the Detroit crime lab, it was just a little much. And that makes you even madder,” Worthy said.

WATCH: Detroit prosecutor vows justice after neglected rape kits found

Worthy’s journey to reverse Detroit’s backlog began in August 2009, when she got a call from then-Assistant Prosecutor Rob Spada.  Spada had just taken a tour of a downtown Detroit warehouse used as an overflow storage facility by the police.  At the time, the system for processing evidence was in disarray and Spada had been called in to help police figure out how to catalog and sort what they had.  As Spada walked through the warehouse covered with graffiti and surrounded by barbed wire, he stumbled upon rows of boxes.

“I saw numerous racks with cardboard boxes, and they told me at that point those were rape kits.  I immediately asked the representatives were they tested rape kits or untested rape kits. And at that point, they said, ‘We don’t know,’” Spada said.

Some of the boxes were opened and exposed to the elements of the musty, warm warehouse. He immediately called his boss, Prosecutor Worthy.

“You would think that with that discovery, everybody would be outraged, but it seemed that this office was the only one,” Worthy said.

Worthy took action because she says she got little support from the police chief at the time. Worthy says the police chief at the time promised an internal review, but she didn’t think that was enough.

She found volunteers on her staff to start sifting through the rape kits trying to match each one with a victim using old, handwritten police logbooks.

“We were literally blowing off dust and dirt off of those books so we can open them up and see if we can find any information in these books that would match the rape kit,” Worthy said.  “My prosecutors that are overworked, underpaid and have too much to do volunteered on their own time because we were all concerned about this issue.”

So far, 600 kits have been tested, and investigators say that they have discovered evidence of 21 serial rapists. Grant money funded the testing of those kits.  Worthy said it costs on average between $1,200 and $1,500 to get each kit tested.  People have wanted to donate money to help get kits tested, but the prosecutor’s office cannot solicit or collect funds.  But now a non-profit organization, the Detroit Crime Commission, has set up a fund and will manage it for the purpose of accepting donations and using those funds to help pay to get kits tested.

To Learn More About the Detroit Rape Kit Initiative, Click Here to Visit the Detroit Crime Commission

Some of the kits tested have revealed sobering results. One kit from 2002 revealed DNA belonging to a man who was in prison for the murder of three women. The murders had been committed during the seven years the rape kit sat on a warehouse shelf.

Inspector Marlon Wilson and Sgt. Marvin Jones are currently in charge of the Detroit Police Department’s sex crimes unit. Since neither police officer was in charge when the rape kits ended up in the warehouse, they were reticent to say whether the police department failed by letting the kits go untested.

“Unfortunately at that time when those rape kits were untested, I was not part of the sex crimes unit, so I really can’t say,” Wilson said.

The Detroit Police department says that they completed an internal review in 2009.  NBC News filed an official request for records of any internal investigation, and two months later we received an eight page document.  In it, the police say once they became aware of the situation in the warehouse, they randomly pulled 36 of the stored rape kits and found there were “justifiable reasons” for not testing them.  Those reasons, police say, include victims who refused to prosecute or were uncooperative and assailants who pleaded guilty to lesser charges.  When NBC News showed the report to Worthy, she questioned its validity.

“Their reasons were just made-up reasons as to why there should be no investigation,” Worthy said. 

Worthy says the newest Detroit Police Chief along with Inspector Wilson and Sgt. Jones have been very cooperative in the effort to now test every rape kit.

“I’m going to make sure that every sexual assault kit that comes through sex crimes is tested,” Sgt. Jones pledged.

“We don’t treat them as 11,000 rape kits.  We’re looking at each one individually,” Wilson said.

NBC News

Audrey Polk's rape kit sat untested for over a decade.

One of the more than 11,000 kits discovered in the warehouse belonged to Audrey Polk.

“I feel like someone’s paid attention now, and it makes me feel a little better. And to those who shut the doors, kept putting boxes, kits on [shelves], shame on them all, shame on them,” said rape survivor Polk.

A mom of two, she was raped in February 1997 in an attack that began while she lay in bed sleeping with her infant daughter and 6-year-old son.

“What woke me up was his weight on top of me. I was horrified,” Polk said. “He had a gun. I know that. He did cover my eyes eventually. I didn’t see him, you know. It was dark.”

After the attack, she immediately called the police, and went to the hospital where evidence was collected from her.

“I had no choice. That was the only way I could ever have a way of, you know, getting this person off the street,” said Polk of the invasive exam.

Polk initially made several calls to the police about her case. She said she got little information and eventually stopped calling. The rape continued to haunt her and her children. Her son had trouble with his anger and had problems at school.

“It makes me tear up now because I know what he’s gone through and his anger, how his life was interrupted and he was cheated out of a normal childhood, you know. That’s not fair,” said an emotional Polk.

Polk, herself, had trouble spending the night alone. Fourteen years after the attack that altered her and her family’s life forever, she received a knock on the door from a Wayne County assistant prosecutor.

“I opened the door, and I said, ‘Ma’am, I’ve never done anything wrong in my life,’ and she goes, ‘No, we know who raped you 14 years ago.’ And I’m looking at her, like, are you really serious?” Polk said.  “And the first thing she said, ‘Well, do you still want to prosecute?’ And I said, ‘Certainly, absolutely, yes, I do.’”

Polk’s assailant was found guilty and sentenced to up to 60 years in prison.

“I hope, more than anything, it gives hope to those women who were ignored that we are working each and every day to try to fix things, and not every case is going to be prosecutable, but we’re going to make sure that we have, we can prosecute as many as we can,” Worthy said.

Editor’s note: Kate Snow’s full report airs Friday, Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. ET/9 CT on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams.

To donate to the Detroit Crime Commission, click here. To specify that your funds go to the testing of rape kits, be sure to click the "add special instructions" section and specify that the funds go to the "Wayne County Rape Kit Initiative."