By Megan Twohey
June 14, 2009
A woman submitted to a rape kit exam in July 2008 at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital after a husky stranger allegedly dragged her to the ground and sexually assaulted her, biting her on the neck and ears, according to police reports.
Nearly one year later, the kit with its potential DNA evidence sits in storage at the Downers Grove Police Department after the agency chose not to have it tested.
In other police storage vaults are rape kits gathered from a 6-year-old Bolingbrook boy, who told investigators an older child forced him to perform oral sex, and from an Aurora woman allegedly sexually assaulted by an acquaintance, who later made a taped confession, police records show.
By allowing a nurse to secure semen, saliva and other potential DNA samples -- an invasive exam that can take up to eight hours -- these Chicago-area residents provided police with potentially valuable forensic evidence. DNA testing of rape kits has identified sexual offenders, linking some predators to numerous attacks.
But in these and nearly 100 other sexual assault allegations handled over the last two years by some of the largest suburban Chicago police departments, including Naperville, Evanston and Aurora, police never had the kits tested, according to records obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Most of the 13 law enforcement agencies reviewed by the Tribune don't require that every kit be tested -- a notable exception being the Chicago Police Department.
In fact, some departments have placed most of the kits in storage, according to the newspaper's review, a finding that prompted outrage from victims advocates and the offices of Cook County State's Atty. Anita Alvarez and Illinois Atty. Gen. Lisa Madigan.
"We feel very strongly that every single kit should be submitted from law enforcement to the crime lab for testing. Period," said Cara Smith, Madigan's deputy chief of staff. "It's so rare for survivors of sexual assault to come forward. For victims to go through that exam and then have the kit sit on the shelf is infuriating. It sends the message that it didn't happen. And we miss a chance to stop future attacks."
Such concerns helped prompt Chicago police in 2005 to start testing all rape kits except in cases where the victim admits to lying, said Sgt. Kathy Warner, commanding officer of the department's DNA unit and evidence evaluation program.
Before that, she said, the department only submitted kits if there was a suspect.
Concerned that Chicago police were sitting on potentially valuable evidence, a non-profit group raised private funds to test hundreds of kits that had been shelved. As a result of the effort from 2003 to 2007, 22 people were implicated in rapes. Three of the kits were traced to Wayne Willis, who was sentenced to 55 years for raping a 15-year-old girl in 1998.
"We now make sure nothing sits on our shelves," Warner said.
Illinois law doesn't require that police submit kits to a crime lab for testing -- only that kits be retrieved from the hospital within two weeks.
The suburban police departments said rape kits are stored untested if the victim recants the allegations, doesn't want to press charges or is found not to be credible. They are also kept if investigators don't believe the case is strong, if the suspect acknowledges he had sex but says it was consensual, or if the state's attorney's office refuses to prosecute.
"Part of it is, you want to see where the case is going before you use those resources, how is it going to shake out," said Kurt Bluder, deputy chief of the Downers Grove Police Department, adding that police can always pull kits out of storage if they later decide testing could prove valuable.
"Are you going to get a confession? Is there a suspect? Do we want to put things in the pipeline and system without knowing for sure we're going to need it? If every department sent in every piece of evidence to be examined, we'd bring the system to its knees."
The Illinois State Police Crime Lab continues to struggle with a DNA backlog, causing nearly yearlong delays in the testing of some rape kits.
The backlog is no excuse for not testing kits, said Shauna Boliker, chief of the criminal division of the Cook County state's attorney's office, which handles 800 to 900 sexual assault cases a year.
The medical consent form for the rape kits explicitly states they will be sent to a crime lab for testing.
"I don't see any reason why these kits should not be tested," Boliker said.
Critics say that by failing to unlock the potential DNA profiles in all rape kits as soon as possible, law enforcement agencies are letting down victims and placing the public in danger of repeated attacks.
Personal biases and sloppy investigating can make detectives ill-equipped to judge the value of rape kits, critics say. They note that although the DNA evidence may not lead to a prosecution in a particular case it can prove a useful in linking attacks and identifying offenders.
The victim in the Downers Grove case said she was unwilling to press charges if the attacker was found, according to police reports.
In the case of the Bolingbrook boy, records show the Will County state's attorney office declined to prosecute after the alleged offender left Illinois. A spokesman said the youth is in a residential treatment facility in another state. In the case of the Aurora woman, DuPage County Assistant State's Atty. Demetri Demopoulos refused the investigator's push for charges.
"I asked him to reconsider since we had a offender taped confession, and a witness that observed the incident," investigator Darrell Moore wrote in his report. Demopoulos "later called me, and advised me that the DuPage ASA would not be authorizing charges at this time. I advised him, that I disagreed with his findings, and thanked him for his time."
DuPage County State's Atty. Joe Birkett said his office takes sexual assault seriously but determined it could not win this case because the offender had no criminal history and the victim had been drinking and had initially expressed interest in having sex with the offender.
"I'm not suggesting the victim wasn't a victim of sexual assault, but what her versions of events are and what we can prove in court are two different things," Birkett said.
"It would be wrong to submit a kit in this case and have him [the accused] branded in CODIS," he added, referring to the Combined DNA Index System, a database of DNA profiles secured from rape kits and convicted felons. CODIS, used as an investigative tool by police, is not accessible to the public.
Like the Chicago Police Department, the Will County sheriff's office has made it a policy to submit every kit to the crime lab.
Sgt. Richard Kowalski said it is in the best interest of the victims, whether cooperative or not, to use the offender database to try to identify a suspect. Many victims, he said, become uncooperative after finding out how complicated the criminal justice process can be.
"Some victims blame themselves," he said. "If it can be shown that a particular person has established a certain pattern of behavior, then it may prevent someone from becoming a victim in the future."
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