She was raped 15 years ago. Her rape kit was finally tested and turned up a match
J.D., age 15, was so embarrassed that she didn’t tell her father on the car ride home that she had just been raped.
Earlier that day, when J.D. was walking to the bus on Capitol Hill, a man approached her. He said his name was James and asked if she wanted to “get high,” and, when she said yes, took her to a shack behind a house, gave her crack to smoke, and then raped her.
In 2018, 14 years after the rape, the state crime lab analyzed the evidence she had given to police. The DNA matched Michael Anderson, a man who was already in prison for holding up a Chevron gas station in south Seattle.
The rape case is one of seven that have been filed in King County court because of the DNA evidence obtained through testing kits in the state’s backlog.
This year, Washington state appropriated millions more dollars toward revamping the state’s crime lab and eliminating the state’s backlog of 10,000 untested rape kits.
Yet, forensic testing is just one part of bringing cold cases to justice.
As the example of J.D.’s case shows, survivors can expect to face more delays before they get their day in court, if ever.
On July 8, 2019, Michael Anderson walked into court, flanked by deputies and a public defender. He wore maroon scrubs and orange socks and slippers. He pleaded guilty.
Anderson was sentenced to seven years, but could be released in three years, in 2022, because of a plea deal.
he day after J.D., was raped she went to Harborview Medical Center.
“I wanted to make sure I didn't get pregnant,” she told a Seattle police detective in 2018 when her case was reopened. “This was one of the first times I'd ever even had sex, and I didn't know what to expect, what the risks were.”
J.D. also allowed a nurse to collect samples from her body as crime evidence. That day in 2004, J.D. talked to a police officer who met her at the hospital. She made an appointment for an interview with the sexual assault unit a few days later. But she didn’t show up, and didn’t call the detective back.
“I didn't want to prosecute or do anything because I was so young and I was so ashamed that I'd use drugs that I thought, you know, I just made this happen,” J.D. told a detective in 2018.
A few days later, her case was inactivated. The evidence a nurse swabbed from her body was stored with the police—the same dead end many rape kits reached prior to 2015, as Seattle police did not send kits from inactive cases to the state crime lab for testing.
In 2015, lawmakers changed state law and mandated that all kits be tested, regardless of what action a police agency took in the case.
J.D.'s kit went to the lab June 2016; the DNA evidence didn’t come back to the police for close to two years, until May 2018.
Lab testing is another point where many kits languish. The crime lab faces a growing backlog of untested evidence from cold cases, but also from new investigations.
The state set aside $10 million this year for rape kits. That money will go toward hiring forensic scientists and renovating a lab in Vancouver, Washington, to be more efficient.
Washington state currently outsources testing to a lab in Utah, which has helped Washington state advance through testing backlogged rape kits at a rate of around 2,900 over three and a half years.
The point of processing a rape kit is to extract the DNA profile and upload it to the FBI’s databases, called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which contains DNA profiles of people arrested for and/or convicted of crimes.
As of July, the state crime lab uploaded DNA from 1,087 rape kits collected before 2015 ... and identified a match for 36 percent of those cases.
When they get a match, the labs send the information to police.
In Seattle, Susanna Monroe, a sergeant in the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse Unit, gets the report.
As of this summer, she had gotten around 1,200 DNA analysis reports from the state lab. “All those cases have to be reviewed,” Monroe said.
Monroe needs at least a half an hour to review technical results, but it can take a couple hours for a complicated case.
“If it's a really old case and I have to have my admin go down and find some paper in a box somewhere, that's gonna take a little while,” she said.
Her detectives are taxed as well. Their caseload has increased from 8-10 cases a month to 15-18 a month from cases generated by rape kits and a recent increase in sexual assault reporting.
The rape kit testing has identified 140 suspects and led Seattle police to reopen 52 cases, including one of a potential serial rapist linked to three rapes.
“DNA is a very strong tool and eventually you will get caught,” Monroe said, smiling.
nce Monroe reviews the tested DNA evidence, the case may go forward for the prosecutor’s office to file charges in court. That’s the next hurdle.
“Testing is one thing, but all the work that comes after that is equally, in many ways, more important,” said Ben Santos, chair of the special assault unit at the King County Prosecutor’s office.
The problem, he said, is the cases “don’t age well.”
“Memories fade, physical evidence goes away over time or may not exist," Santos said. "The crime scene will often no longer be the place that it was when the incident occurred.”
Prosecutors may not have the corroborating evidence they need to convince a jury. For example, even though prosecutors can prove sex took place, they also have to prove it was nonconsensual.
On average, rape cases take over a year to be resolved once they’re filed in court, according to KUOW’s analysis of King County court records. The timeline can stretch even longer if the case involves rape of a child.
Santos doesn’t know how much more work will result from forthcoming DNA testing, he said, but at some point the prosecutor’s office is going to feel the pinch.
“Inevitably we are going to need more resources,” Santos said.
Victims’ advocates are already feeling strained.
The number of clients seeking help from King County Sexual Assault Resource Center (KCSARC) has increased 43 percent since 2013, according to the center. The biggest spike came between 2017 and 2018, following the beginning of the #MeToo movement.
The cases will only increase from here, as lawmakers removed the statute of limitations for child sexual abuse and extended it for adult survivors this year.
Victims need someone to act on their behalf as their case winds through the criminal justice process of investigation, prosecution and potentially trial, executive director Mary Ellen Stone said.
“The victim is there as a witness. The prosecutors are not his or her attorneys,” she said.
Instead, an advocate from the center is there to emotionally support them and guide them through the process: attending the victim’s interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys, helping them get a protection order, making sure they know where to show up for court.
“It really makes a big difference to have somebody walking alongside them,” Stone said. “When we're as overextended as we are, that's hard to do.”
KCSARC needs at least another million dollars a year, she said, to be able to maintain their levels of service into the future.
Sgt. Monroe with the Seattle police says her unit needs more funding, too, and she would like at least two more detectives.
“This is only the beginning,” she said. “I certainly predict that we're going to be seeing more cases come out of these DNA kits.”