To Catch a Predator
Pesta, Abigail, Newsweek
Byline: Abigail Pesta
One woman's quest to solve 11,000 rapes.
Kym Worthy was a first-year law student at the University of Notre Dame when she was raped. A man approached her from behind as she jogged one night, throwing a cloth over her head and pulling her to the ground. That was some 30 years ago; she never reported the attack. "Things were different then," she says. "And I was young."
Today Worthy is a prosecutor in Detroit, with a much different perspective. Her decision not to report the crime, she says, was "all justification and rationalization." Now she is on a singular mission: seeking justice for people who do report their rapes. She's leading a charge to get more than 11,000 police rape kits--which contain swabs of semen, saliva, and other evidence--tested for DNA in her city, and to establish a road map for other U.S. cities to do the same. In Detroit the kits had piled up, ignored for years, in a police storage facility, until one of Worthy's colleagues discovered them in 2009.
"I was flabbergasted," says Worthy, recalling the day she found out about the scandal. "When victims go through a three-hour-plus rape-kit exam, they expect police to use the evidence to catch the rapist."
Worthy studied up and quickly learned that this wasn't just a Detroit problem, but a nationwide blind spot. Cities across the country had reported stacks of kits: 11,000 in San Antonio, 1,200 in Albuquerque, 4,000 in Houston, according to Sarah Tofte, who has studied rape-kit pile-ups for Human Rights Watch. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of untested kits are languishing in police storage facilities.
Part of the reason for the clog is the price of testing the kits. Each kit can cost an average of $1,200 to $1,500, as technicians need to extract and separate DNA from two people--the victim and the assailant--from a swab, says Tofte, who writes about the issue in the new Human Rights Watch book, The Unfinished Revolution. But resources aren't always to blame, she says; often the kits are simply a low priority for police.
That was the case in Detroit, Worthy believes. "I wrote a very terse letter to the police chief at the time" to demand action, she says, but received no reply. "Someone in the police department leaked it to the press. Then the police chief called." With the help of local and state grants, Worthy then teamed up with the police, sexual-assault experts, and the University of Michigan to launch an effort called the 400 Project, which would do a statistical analysis of 400 randomly selected kits. …