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Tested At Last, Rape Kits Give Evidence To Victims' Stories

Cleveland police are testing thousands of rape kits, some dating back to 20 years ago.
Lonnie Timmons III
The Plain Dealer
Cleveland police are testing thousands of rape kits, some dating back to 20 years ago.

Back in 2009, reporters Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi discovered that the Cleveland Police Department had a massive backlog of so-called rape kits going back decades.

The kits include the DNA swabs taken from women who have reported they've been sexually assaulted. The DNA is used to identify the men who allegedly attacked them.

In thousands of cases, the DNA simply wasn't tested. The kits sat on the shelf, the cases went unsolved, and the alleged rapists went unpunished.

Now, at last, the kits are being taken down and tested.

A Nationwide Queue

"They had to sort through thousands of kits and other pieces of evidence in their evidence room," says Rachel Dissell, who covered the story for The Cleveland Plain Dealer. "What they found was that there was about 4,000 that had never been tested."

So far, 1,000 kits have been tested and the remaining 3,000 are still waiting. This isn't just a problem in Cleveland. In Houston, there are over 8,000 untested kits and over 11,000 in Detroit. The federal government estimates that nationwide, 400,000 rape kits have gone untested.

"DNA testing became more widely available in the early '90s but that doesn't mean that every state or police department had a method for getting that testing done," Dissell says. "It was quite expensive in the beginning and so the investigations themselves were not really all that extensive."

But it's not too late to test these kits.

"So long as they're kept in a cool, dry place, that DNA can be usable for quite a long time," says Dissell.

Reopening Past Horrors

As the cases get solved, Dissell and her colleagues, as well as prosecutors and detectives, are finding themselves in the difficult position of knocking on the doors of rape victims and asking them to talk about horrific things.

One of these women is Allyssa Allison. She reported she was raped in 1993, but her kit was never tested. She says she even told police she knew who her attacker was. Even though he was hiding his face, she says she's sure it was her landlord.

"I had a gut feeling," Allison says. "Everything was pointing that way. He just knew too much about the things that were wrong with my apartment."

Like the broken window in the bathroom he used to break in.

"I had told him numerous times that that needed to be fixed. And he never fixed it," she says.

Fast-forward 20 years to this past summer, when Allison got a knock on the door from a female detective.

"I wasn't very nice, to be honest," Allison says. "She's like, 'I really have to talk to you,' and I was like, 'I'm not ready to talk, what are you here for?' And she's like, 'Well, this is important.'"

The detective eventually left, but later called Allison on the phone. She told her it was in regards to her rape in 1993.

"Literally, my jaw did drop," Allison says. "It was very surreal, because I kind of knew where the conversation was going to go. I said, 'Well did you find him?' And she was like, 'No. But we do have something called a possible DNA hit.'"

That meant police had finally tested Allison's rape kit — and returned a positive ID for her landlord.

"I think I had said over the phone to her, 'I knew it. I knew it.' And 20 years ago, the police didn't want to listen to me," she says.

Confirmation, Too Late

It was too late to prosecute the landlord. He died in 2005. Testers had to use his son's DNA to identify him.

Her landlord's DNA also matched DNA from a rape kit of another woman who lived in Allison's building complex. That news wasn't easy for Allison to hear.

"That's the part that really gets me sick. Literally makes me nauseous is the fact that he got away with doing this — after he did this to me," Allison says.

The DNA was also a match for at least two other rape cases. "But who knows, there might be others," Allison says. "And that's the part that really gets to me. That breaks my heart."

She says there is one thing that gives her solace, though: She doesn't have to be afraid of him anymore.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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