Millions of dollars are set to help police around Maryland process rape kits that have sat untested in storage and keep pace with new cases.
The funds include $3.5 million that is part of a new state fund for testing, plus a portion of a $2.6 million federal grant that also will help track kits and support survivors. And Baltimore County recently received a private $300,000 grant from a local foundation to help sex-crimes detectives investigate decades-old cold cases.
At last count in 2018, 10 of Maryland’s largest police departments reported possessing more than 6,500 untested kits, according to the Maryland Attorney General’s Office. An updated statewide inventory is expected soon.
“In my opinion, testing rape kits — whether it’s here in Baltimore or in Cleveland or in Detroit — has not been a priority,” said Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat who has pushed for statewide reforms. But “I have seen, in my short five years in elected office, a substantial shift in thinking about how the kits should be handled — and I would say that’s for the good.”
The funding comes as Maryland puts into place new rules for how police handle samples taken from sexual assault victims, often called rape kits. Starting Jan. 1, state law will require police to promptly submit most rape kits for forensic testing unless the victim doesn’t want that.
Investigations by The Baltimore Sun have found that hundreds of rape kits have been destroyed by police departments rather than stored, even though it is not uncommon for victims to change their minds about pressing charges. A 2017 law now requires police to retain kits for 20 years.
A rape kit contains evidence, such as samples of blood and semen, collected during a medical examination that can last more than four hours. After a crime lab processes the samples, the DNA profile can be submitted to a national FBI database to compare it with others. So testing a rape kit sometimes can lead to a suspect wanted in connection with another assault.
It typically costs an average of $1,000 to $1,500 to process one rape kit. In many cases in Maryland, police have chosen not to submit kits for testing.
Advocates say the number of untested kits are a manifestation of larger shortcomings in investigating and prosecuting sexual assaults, from not believing victims to failing to follow up on leads.
"It’s like a symptom of an illness, that rape and sexual assault are issues that aren’t taken seriously in a variety of ways — by all kinds of industries, all kinds of people, including law enforcement,” said Brittany Oliver, founder of the Baltimore-area advocacy organization Not Without Black Women.
Maryland was awarded a $2.6 million grant last year from the U.S. Department of Justice as part of the Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Initiative, a national effort that has inventoried more than 87,000 kits and sent more than 54,000 for testing.
About a third of the grant will help test roughly 900 kits that were collected before April 2018. Other money is set aside to develop a tracking system and hire victim advocates.
“We do not believe the federal funding will even come close to testing all the old kits, but we’re hopeful that we will be able to begin the process,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.
The testing funds will be distributed in the coming year, said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Brian Frosh’s office, which staffs a statewide oversight committee for rape kit policy and funding.
In addition, Maryland lawmakers this year established an annual fund of $3.5 million to help prevent a backlog going forward.
The state money to test rape kits was part of $245 million set aside by the Democrat-controlled General Assembly that was held up by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in a dispute over state spending. Hogan later allocated the $3.5 million for testing from the existing budget of the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention, which is administering the program.
Applications from police departments were due Nov. 18. State officials said six agencies applied but wouldn’t say which ones. They could not yet provide an estimate of the number of rape kits that could be tested using the money.
Advocates are hopeful the efforts will help close cases.
Across the country, “old kits are ending up in arrests and prosecutions of these offenders who have been escaping justice for decades," said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for counting and testing all kits.
At the same time, the prospect of reopening old investigations may dig up painful memories for victims who believed their case was closed. Advocates are working to help police agencies establish protocols for how to approach victims in cold cases.
“It’s vital that we reach out to survivors and let them know the status of their rape kit, seek their consent and advice … and make sure they’re as involved as they want to be,” Jordan said.
In Baltimore County, police are looking back on cases that are decades old.
In the 1970s — long before police used DNA to solve rape cases — Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker began to catalog samples from women who went to the Greater Baltimore Medical Center after assaults. The doctor preserved semen and other fluids on microscope slides, believing they would someday be viable evidence.
The samples already have helped county police clear dozens of cases since the early 2000s, but slides associated with more than 1,500 county cases remain untested.
The Hackerman Foundation — named for the late philanthropist and Whiting-Turner CEO Willard Hackerman — recently donated $300,000 to the county government to help sex crimes detectives investigate cold cases.
The GBMC samples are not considered standard rape kits as Breitenecker began collecting them before the process was standardized. They’re not counted in official tallies of untested rape kits in Maryland.
Hettleman said her constituent Nancy Hackerman, daughter of the Whiting-Turner chief, had read about her work on sexual assault issues and asked whether there was anything she could do to help. Eventually the county submitted a proposal to the foundation.
Nancy Hackerman could not be reached for comment. The foundation did not make a public comment when county officials announced the grant.
In October, a review by a task force set up by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, found that police rarely tested evidence from rapes or filed charges in cases where victims did not report right away.
County police plan to spend the grant money on a range of expenses, from staff training and overtime to forensic genealogy studies, as well as testing of both the GBMC slides and modern-era rape kits, according to a county grant proposal.
Lt. Brian Edwards, commander of the county’s special victims unit, said police are combing through microfiche police reports and old log books to try to link unsolved cases to GBMC slides.
“That’s a long and arduous task ahead of us,” he said. But “I think there’s the possibility of identifying prosecutable cases.”
Private donations, along with government funding, have played a key role in helping authorities in Detroit work their way through more than 11,000 untested kits that were discovered a decade ago in a police storage facility.
“We had to have house parties, we had to have campaign parties,” said Kym Worthy, Wayne County, Michigan’s prosecuting attorney, in an interview with Michigan’s public radio network, adding that people in all 50 states and nine foreign countries stepped in to help.
The efforts in Detroit have resulted in the identification of 824 serial offenders from 40 states, including Maryland, and 197 convictions, according to Worthy’s office.
Knecht, of the Joyful Heart Foundation, said aggressive prosecution of old and difficult cases is crucial.
“Testing is one thing," she said. “If you don’t do anything with the results that come out of the testing, it’s a piece of paper.”
Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger previously opposed state legislation to require local police to test rape kits, saying law enforcement has limited resources and that in many cases a suspect’s identity is not in question since the victim and perpetrator know each other.
But the prosecutor said he now sees the value in testing all kits even when authorities know a perpetrator’s identity because research shows it can link suspects to other crimes.
“If we find a case and we can go forward, we will,” said Shellenberger, a member of the statewide committee tasked with overseeing funding and policy for rape kit testing.
Some advocates say the fact that private donors have stepped in to test rape kits points to a failure of government.
Last month, at a Towson news conference where Baltimore County officials announced the foundation grant, former Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, a rape survivor and advocate, questioned why all the GBMC slides have not been tested.
In 1983, at the age of 18, Neuman was raped at gunpoint in the bedroom of her Baltimore home. No one believed her, she said, and police did not investigate.
Nearly two decades later, in her 30s, Neuman pressed city police to reopen the case. They matched fingerprints taken from her window to Alphonso W. Hill, who pleaded guilty to the attack.
“It had been 19 years, and it was solved in three days,” Neuman said in a recent interview.
Then, after county detectives began looking into the GBMC slides in the early 2000s, they linked Hill to other rapes. In 2008, he pleaded guilty to six attacks in the Towson area from 1978 to 1989. Authorities later connected him to more unsolved assaults.
The way police have handled rape kits, Neuman said, speaks to how society has viewed sex crimes.
“If this were any other crime, wouldn’t we test all the evidence?” Neuman asked.
Baltimore Sun Media reporter Taylor DeVille contributed to this article.