Manhattan District Attorney rape kit backlog grants lead to 186 arrests nationwide

Grants were awarded through the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

Eleven thousand untested rape kits were found in an abandoned warehouse near Detroit in 2009. For years since, local officials nationwide have been working to get the funding to test their own backlog of untested kits.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has been trying to help other jurisdictions that face their own backlogs, doling out $38 million nationwide over the course of three years to pay for kits to be tested and criminals brought to justice.

From 2015 to 2018, the Manhattan District Attorney's Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program allotted grants to 32 jurisdictions in 20 states, leading to the testing of more than 55,000 kits.

In all, the results from those tests led to 186 arrests and 64 convictions.

In addition to addressing specific cases, the evidence collected was added to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

A report released Tuesday by the Manhattan District Attorney's office states that 18,803 DNA profiles were added into CODIS as a result of the tested rape kits, which will help track criminals across state lines.

'A catalyst for hope'

A woman whose case was brought to justice as a result of the tested rape kits also spoke at Tuesday's news conference.

She was one of the seven women who was raped by Nathan Loebe, a serial rapist in Arizona who was found guilty in late February on 12 counts of sexual assault, five counts of kidnapping, three counts of stalking and one count of attempted sexual assault, according to the Associated Press, for cases that occurred between 2003 and 2015.

Five years after Loebe raped her while on a date, the victim said she was contacted by Pima County investigators who were looking into the case as a result of the grant awarded by the Manhattan District Attorney's office.

The victim said that "myself and eight other brave women pulled together" to bring charges against Loebe.

"Having my kit finally tested was a catalyst for hope," she said.

Money matters

Portions of the $38 million spent by the Manhattan DA's office were spread to jurisdictions in 20 states, leading to the testing of 55,252 kits.

Of the 20 states that received funding, at least seven states -- Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon and Michigan -- "have either eliminated or are close to eliminating their statewide backlogs," a new report from the Manhattan DA says.

The grants ranged in size and location, with the smallest amount of $163,590 awarded to the City of Flint police department to test 309 kits. The largest grant -- $1,999,982 -- was awarded to the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and funded the testing of 3,462 kits.

The $38 million used in this program came from a somewhat unexpected source: criminal asset forfeiture funds from settlements with international banks who violated U.S. sanctions, the report states.

Without going into detail, the report says Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance determined those forfeited funds would be invested in "impactful projects that improve public safety," and the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Grant Program was formed in 2015.

The grants were awarded in 2015, at a ceremony that featured activist and actress Mariska Hargitay and then-Vice President Joe Biden, both of whom have been outspoken on the need to end the sexual assault kit backlog.

How New York addressed their backlog

The report details how New York City dealt with their own rape kit backlog, taking a so-called "forklift" approach to test all 17,000 backlogged kits in 2000, the same year New York state joined CODIS.

One way New York City prosecutors were able to create indictments for sexual offenders even when investigators were not able to identify the assailants by name was by filing a case around a suspect's DNA.

A "John Doe" indictment allows prosecutors to have the case open within the statute of limitations, even if the assailant's name isn't known during that time. Then, if the DNA profile receives a hit and identification through the CODIS system at a later date, the assailant can be linked to the existing "John Doe" indictment.

At Tuesday's news conference, Vance said that "dedicated funding streams are necessary to end the backlog but they are not ... sufficient," adding that he believes states need to change their laws.

Vance called for states to eliminate their statues of limitation for felony sexual assault, mandate timely rape kit testing, require the testing of all backlogged rape kits and call for an annual state-wide inventory of backlogged kits.

Combinations of donations and work

In Wayne County, Michigan, where the abandoned warehouse was found to hold 11,000 untested kits in 2009, the county prosecutor got funding for a random sample of 400 of those kits to be tested, the report states. Those tests "generated so many leads" that a subset of the Department of Justice funded the testing of 1,600 other tests, according to the report.

Those results led to the identification of 127 potential serial rapists, connections to crimes of 23 other states, and 14 convictions.

Now, a combination of a donation from private donors and a $4 million allocation from the Michigan state legislature is being used to test all of the county's remaining kits. The Manhattan DA's grant program awarded $1,996,991 to the Michigan State Police, which helped test 3,440 kits.

That funding is vital, since cost is one of the most mitigating factors that stops rape kits from being tested. On average, the report says it costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to ship and test a kit, not to mention additional testing that has to be done by the presiding jurisdiction.

Ilse Knecht, the director of policy and advocacy at Hargitay's group, the Joyful Heart Foundation, called for all legislators to "see sexual violence as the violent crime that it is."

"We know the value of testing every single rape kit. We know its the right thing to do," Knecht said at Tuesday's news conference.

"We know that many rapists are serial offenders and they don't stop until they are stopped," she said.