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Rape kit research to expand with $3 million from U.S. Department of Justice

A Case Western Reserve University research project that has become a national model for helping reshape how sexual assaults are investigated and prosecuted—including cases borne from rape kits 20-plus years old—will share two new grants totaling $3 million from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ).

Since 2014, researchers from the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences have teamed with the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office to test and study data from Northeast Ohio’s more than 5,000 unsubmitted rape kits from between 1993 and 2009.

As a result, the effort—known as the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Task Force—has led to 527 indictments and 219 convictions (with a 93 percent conviction rate), so far. A third of the indicted are serial rapists.

The smaller of the two grants—for $1 million—supports a first-in-the-nation initiative: a new three-year effort to conduct a census of felons who “owe” DNA to the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). In Ohio, law enforcement must swab DNA from every arrested and convicted felon, but collection has been inconsistent.

Rachel Lovell
Rachel Lovell, senior research associate with the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education at the university’s Jack, Joseph, and Morton Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

Once individuals missing from the system are identified, law enforcement will seek out their DNA; meanwhile, Case Western Reserve researchers will provide protocols to other jurisdictions to aid in DNA collection efforts as well as prevent future failures in collecting “owed” DNA.

“With more DNA, we can see if rape suspects are linked to other assaults or crimes, which can give us a better idea of their behavior, which helps future investigations around the country,” said Rachel Lovell, a senior research associate at the Mandel School.

The new $2 million grant will fund efforts to investigate pre-1993 rape kits, yielding evidence from crimes that may fall outside the state’s statute of limitations for sexual assault. Still, even with those cases unprosecutable, the Task Force will re-engage with some of the victims, a process that seeks to empower them but is fraught with sensitivities.

“Victims may want to know who their rapist is and, for some, there could be value in knowing what happened to that person,” said Daniel J. Flannery, the Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor at the Mandel School and director of the Begun Center. “Since this is uncharted territory, we will try to find the best approach.”

Researchers will also study non-forensic data in old case files to aid in identifying serial and unknown offenders, which could result in catching rapists at earlier stages.

“It doesn’t matter the age of the information,” Flannery said. “We still have responsibility to resolve those cases and learn lessons for the benefit of other jurisdictions.”

The findings are already guiding law enforcement beyond Cuyahoga County to focus on how to efficiently investigate and prosecute cases, recognize serial offenders and understand the positive economic impact of such efforts. Many jurisdictions are starting to test backlogged rape kits.

Dan Flannery
Daniel J. Flannery, the Dr. Semi J. and Ruth W. Begun Professor at the Mandel School and director of the Begun Center

Case Western Reserve researchers have published a series of briefs available online detailing their results. Among their findings: serial sexual offenders are more common than previously thought, with 25 percent of indicted rapists linked to another reported sexual assault—crimes that could have possibly been prevented if each rape kit had been tested in a timely manner and led to a conviction, said Lovell.

The DOJ’s Bureau of Justice Assistance administers the grants, which are part of its National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. The university’s research effort, known as the Cuyahoga County Sexual Assault Kit Research Project, will receive $858,324 from the new grants through 2019. That’s in addition to a 2015 DOJ grant of $486,426 that ends in 2018.

“We need to finish the job,” said Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty, in a release from his office, “and these grants will help us do so.”

The Sexual Assault Task Force also includes the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Department, the Cleveland Division of Police Sex Crimes Unit, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation and the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center.