In 2009, prosecutors in Detroit discovered more than 11,000 boxes of potential evidence in rape cases left completely unprocessed. Row upon row of what are called "rape kits" remained untouched on shelves in a police evidence room for years. No DNA evidence was extracted; no DNA evidence was used to catch or prosecute the assailants.
Since then, Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy has lead the effort to sort through those 11,000 rape kits and to find the funding to get them processed.
"I don't know if they were just forgotten, I don't know if they were ignored, I don't know if they were deliberately put there," Worthy tells weekends on All Things Considered's Guy Raz, "I don't know any of that. All I know is that they were there and that we had to do something about it."
Worthy arranged for a federal grant of one million dollars, but says that didn't allow her team to do much more than sort the evidence, match them up with police reports, and begin a database. To process all of the kits, Worthy estimates, would cost about $15 million.
"If we had the funding to examine and have all of these rape kits tested, we would do that. But right now ... we have to categorize and prioritize the cases that we are looking at first."
So far, just two of the cases are set for trial.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
Now to a disturbing story out of Detroit. Prosecutors there discovered more than 11,000 boxes of potential DNA evidence in rape cases left completely unprocessed. Row upon row of what are called rape kits remained on storage shelves for years unexamined so no DNA evidence was ever used to catch or prosecute the assailants in those cases.
Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy has taken the lead in sorting through those 11,000 rape kits. That's been her mission since they were discovered two years ago.
KYM WORTHY: There was an inventory being done by the Michigan State Police crime lab, and that is when they were discovered sitting on shelves in an annex to the Detroit Police Department property room that we didn't even know about.
RAZ: Explain what is inside of these kits.
WORTHY: Well, inside of the kits are all of the fibers, the hairs pulled out from every orifice of a rape victim. Sorry to be so candid, but that's what it is. A rape kit process can be over three hours or more, subjecting the victim who has just been sexually assaulted to this really intimate intrusion - yet another intimate intrusion. And so there's all kinds of evidence that can be tested and that hopefully can be used in a trial to identify a perpetrator.
RAZ: Eleven thousand in Detroit alone. I mean, how did it get to that point? Why was nothing done?
WORTHY: That's the $64,000 question. I don't know why. I don't know if they were just forgotten. I don't know if they were ignored, I don't know if they were deliberately put there, I don't know any of that. All I know is that they were there and that we had to do something about it.
RAZ: So there are hundreds, if not thousands of rapists who have never been prosecuted, let alone arrested for their crimes potentially.
WORTHY: Thousands and thousands. Even though some of the rape kits we did find, there had been cases that were conducted without any kind of rape kit analysis and that had already been adjudicated. But the overwhelming majority were not in that posture.
RAZ: You applied for a grant from the National Institute of Justice...
RAZ: ...to review the kits. You did receive a grant of $1 million.
RAZ: Tell me what will happen now. Will you be able to use that money to begin testing these kits?
WORTHY: Well, yes and no. The first major thing that was done is that there was a random sample taken from the 11,000. And we were told by the Michigan State University statistics department that if we take 400 of these kits randomly, that'll give us a snapshot of what we have in the 11,000. And as a matter of fact, we have two of those cases that are currently set for trial.
The others, we went through - did an inventory, for lack of a better word, of the over 11,000 rape kits. It took over 50 assistant prosecutors and volunteer interns to be able to put it in a database, because you have to understand, one of the biggest problems we had at the time, there was no database with the Detroit Police Department.
That meant there was no way that we could crosscheck the police reports with the rape kits so there was no connection. So this is a very, very long process that took months and months and months to do. The biggest problem we have now is the funding. If we had the funding to examine and have all of these rape kits tested, we would do that. But right now, since our funding is extremely limited, we have to categorize and prioritize the cases that we are looking at first.
RAZ: My understanding is that it can cost more than $1,000 to process each of these kits languishing on the shelves.
WORTHY: You are correct. It costs approximately $1,500 to test a single kit. And our estimate, if all the kits were to be tested, would cost us about $15 million.
RAZ: Wow. This is not just a Detroit problem.
RAZ: You have found this - similar problems...
RAZ: ...in cities all across the country, San Antonio, Albuquerque, Houston...
WORTHY: New York, L.A., Chicago, everywhere.
RAZ: It's worrying that so many victims of sexual assaults and those crimes are just going uninvestigated.
WORTHY: It's particularly bad with sexual assault, if not the most unreported crime, one of the most unreported crimes. So you have women out here that are already not reporting, and then, if - when they hear things like this, it could cause a woman who would be inclined to report, not to report.
RAZ: So if a woman is a victim of sexual assault in Wayne County now, she should feel confident that it will be investigated and that testing will happen.
WORTHY: Yes. We really, really want to make sure this doesn't happen again. We really want to work to provide a national protocol. So if it does happen in any jurisdiction in this country that they will know exactly what to do, and it won't take them as long to rectify their issue.
RAZ: That's Kym Worthy. She's a prosecutor in Wayne County, Michigan. She's heading up the effort to process more than 11,000 unprocessed rape kits in Detroit. Kym Worthy, thank you so much.
WORTHY: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.