For years, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office had a backlog of rape kits, which contain DNA evidence that could link a suspect to a victim. Some of those kits dated back to the 1980s. In recent years, the agency spent $1 million to test nearly 1,000 kits.
But police still haven't made an arrest on any of the leads generated in the process. According to a Palm Beach Post investigation, sheriff’s deputies didn’t try to contact victims or suspects in dozens of cases with new leads.
Kenny Jacoby, the lead reporter on the story, spoke with WLRN about combing through more than 1,200 pages of police reports to see how PBSO dealt with a new Florida law requiring police agencies to submit all rape kits for testing within 30 days of receiving them.
WLRN: What did your investigation reveal about suspects whose DNA was matched to a national crime database?
Jacoby: What we found was, before the law even got passed, last year, they had started making progress in plowing through its backlog, which contained a little over 1,500 kits. We found out that they had gotten through about a thousand of them, and of those, they produced 140 matches to the database of violent offenders. From there, we requested the police reports of all 140 of those cases and started looking through them to see what were they doing years later in terms of follow-up and had they made any arrests. And we found that, in fact, they had not made a single arrest, two-and-a-half years after they started testing them. They only spoke to about half the victims whose case led to a new lead from the DNA, and they didn't interview a single one of the suspects.
Why didn't they interview any of the suspects?
The way police investigate these cases is before they ever reach out to the suspects, they reach out to the victim first, because they want to give the victim a chance to say, 'I don't want to be involved in this at all,' or 'Yes, I will cooperate with you and pick the guy out of a lineup.' But in this case, police decided to close a bunch of the case files – at least half of them – without ever reaching out to the victims, let alone the suspect.
Their rationale a lot of the time was that years earlier at the time of the incident, or in the days or weeks after, the victim told police she did not want to cooperate in a police investigation; or she didn't want to prosecute; or she had just lost touch with them. In some other cases, detectives would write, the victim describes an African-American suspect and the one that we got from the DNA match was Hispanic. And so, because the descriptions don't line up, we're not gonna follow up.
We talked to a lot of people – defense attorneys, prosecutors, victims rights advocates – and all of them pretty much said that is the wrong approach. No matter the circumstances, police should always reach back out to the victim to see what she wants to do years later. Because a lot of things can change, from the hours or days after you've been traumatized and violated in one of the most horrific ways.
What does your investigation say about prosecuting sexual assaults?
The prosecutors who we talked to said was that it's nearly impossible to prosecute and convict an accused rapist without the testimony of the victim. There are some exceptions, such as if there were lots of witnesses who would testify, even if the victim does not. But most of the time, a prosecution is going to require the victim's cooperation.
And so then you have to say, O.K. so we need this victim's cooperation, but the victim often gets turned off by the way police interact with her. That's what gets to this notion of rape culture. In a lot of these reports, we read the victim would would call the police right away, but the way that they interacted with her turned her off in some way. They would say, Why didn't you run away? Or why didn't you scream? Or why did you get in the car with him in the first place? It was all this kind of suspicion of maybe she's lying and maybe she really wanted it. Sexual assault is unique in that regard. It is one of the only crimes where it's common to see a police officer go in with the idea that maybe this person is lying.
What does that demonstrate about the way law enforcement has dealt with sexual assault cases? It seems like there's still a long way to go, right?
For sure. It's a good thing that all of these old kits are being tested. If nothing else, because a lot of rapists, as studies have shown, are serial offenders. Even if an old case from 1980 is no longer prosecutable, at least that person's DNA will now be in this database of violent offenders and can be matched to any other crime scenes where DNA was found.
But where it falls short is that you have to be willing to follow up on these old cases and make arrests. And we have seen in other places in the country – Detroit, Cleveland and even in Florida, Jacksonville and Volusia – have made some arrests as a result of testing these kits. Palm Beach still might. But, for the amount that they had and all the new leads that they didn't follow up on, it shows that just testing all these old kits isn't enough. You have to be willing to go back in and investigate.
Correction: This post was updated to correct for the number of kits in the agency's backlog. The number was originally stated as 5,300. It should be just over 1,500.