The Untested Rape Kits - What Happened Next

by Julie Graber | on 8 Aug 2019

The Atlantic: “An Epidemic of Disbelief” by Barbara Bradley Hagerty. (06-August-2019)

Remember the backlog of untested rape kits reported in the news a number of years ago? Barbara Hagerty’s article for The Atlantic provides an in-depth look at what has happened in the wake of this scandal and outlines what police and researchers have learned as the kits were tested and results analyzed. Those findings include the following.

  • Serial rapists are far more common than originally believed. This is probably one of the most disheartening points made in the article - the number of rapes that could have been prevented if the kits had been analyzed in a timely manner. Cleveland ended up with leads on 480 serial predators.

  • Serial offenders do not necessarily have an “MO” - their victims and attacks don’t necessarily follow a pattern. Plans change based on circumstances.

  • Acquaintance rapists and stranger rapists can be one in the same. Acquaintance rape kits are often untested since the perpetrator is known, but police identified a number of perpetrators in cases involving a stranger from the DNA results from acquaintance rape kits.

But of perhaps greater consequence is what researchers uncovered when reviewing the case files that went along with the kits. As Hagerty notes in the article, “the rape-kit scandal has turned out to be only a visible symptom of a much bigger issue.”

“The deeper problem,” says Hagerty, “is a criminal-justice system in which police officers continue to reflexively disbelieve women who say they’ve been raped.” According to Hagerty, “rape—more than murder, more than robbery or assault—is by far the easiest violent crime to get away with.”

Hagerty goes on to say that “the fate of a rape case usually depends on the detective’s or (less often) prosecutor’s view of the victim—not the alleged perpetrator.” Did she seem traumatized enough? Did she fight back? Did she know her rapist? Does she have a criminal past? Was she drinking? Give the wrong answer to any of these questions (and others) and investigators will advise the alleged victim to drop the charges.

Some women have argued that the failure to test their rape kits and investigate their cases is gender discrimination - that the justice system gives rape a lower priority than violent crimes committed against men - but to date these complaints have been dismissed or withdrawn.

Hagerty closes by noting the perhaps this time, things will be different. The investigations that have resulted from the analyzed rape kits are showing that these cases can be pursued. Perpetrators can be identified, captured, and prosecuted. Serial rapists can be sent to prison before they leave a trail of victims in their wake. And justice can be served - “but only if police and prosecutors can suspend their disbelief.”

Researchers at Case Western in partnership with the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force are continuing to look at what can be learned from the untested rape kit scandal and subsequent investigations. More information and a list of findings are available at the Case Western website.

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