Concern over Detroit police handling of rape kits

BY Joe Swickard and Chris Christoff
Detroit Free Press

DETROIT — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy wants an independent investigation into what she says may be thousands of kits holding evidence of possible sexual assaults that were found in a Detroit Police Department evidence storage facility.

In a Sept. 8 letter to Police Chief Warren Evans, Worthy said there may be more than 10,000 so-called rape kits and hundreds of other pieces of evidence warehoused, unanalyzed, in a police "overflow property room." The situation raises fears that cases could be affected if the evidence is challenged in court, Worthy said.

Police spokesman John Roach said Monday that Evans has an internal investigation under way, and that so far, police have found no mishandling of evidence and no cases that have been tainted. Roach also said the evidence is secure.

But Worthy contends in her letter that though the issue predates Evans' administration, the investigation should be handled by an outside agency. Worthy's letter also asks for an immediate meeting, but none has been set.

The police crime lab was shut down a year ago because of an extraordinarily high error rate in firearms cases.

William Winters III, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, said it may be time for federal authorities to look into the lab and the handling of evidence. "They have the money and resources," he said.

Worthy wants an outsider to conduct police evidence probe

The discredited Detroit Police Department crime lab continues to haunt the criminal justice system a year after it was closed because of errors and mishandled evidence.

Officials have to act decisively to assess thousands of sexual-assault evidence kits found in an evidence facility, and it's going to take an outsider to do it, Worthy told Evans in an urgent letter sent this month.

The problems that closed the police lab "have already raised too many issues within the courts with how evidence has been processed and tested," Worthy wrote in the Sept. 8 letter.

She called the evidence handling "alarming." Worthy's spokesman, Jack Fennessey, said Friday that she was stunned by the reports. He did not return calls Monday.

But Detroit police spokesman John Roach said that, so far, the department's preliminary investigation shows the kits include ones "already processed for criminal investigations, as well as a large number of kits that never required processing because the cases were resolved without the need for DNA evidence."

Those unprocessed kits include cases in which a person didn't want to pursue the charges or the prosecutor declined to issue a warrant, he said. Other cases ended with a plea or involved assaults that would not have left DNA, Roach said.

Boxes of evidence found

Worthy's letter, however, offered a grimmer view, of an evidence room that to her "understanding," was filled with sexual-assault evidence kits, known as rape kits, and other evidence that had not yet been analyzed. The problems have been worsened by the destruction of other, unspecified evidence that needed to be retested because of "the sub par work conducted by the lab," Worthy added in her letter.

Boxes of rape kits were found in an evidence room several weeks ago during a routine inspection of police facilities by Michigan State Police.

The evidence warehouse also had hundreds of other pieces of evidence and case files, some of which, Worthy wrote, is "unmarked and not catalogued in any intelligible way."

If any of the kits are used in court, they are open to challenge "on a number of levels, and my office needs to know the clear gravity of this situation," Worthy wrote.

Roach said the internal probe was under way before Worthy's letter. "Once the internal affairs report is finalized, the chief will determine whether an outside review is necessary, and he will share our findings with the prosecutor," Roach said Monday.

He said judgment should be withheld until the investigation is concluded, and the department "takes sexual assaults very seriously and is committed to making sure all evidence is handled appropriately."

The lab was closed last year after an audit found an error rate of 10% in firearms cases. The entire lab was shut down out of fear the slipshod practices extended to other testing.

Detroit reported 1,264 rapes from 2006 through 2008, according to the latest FBI statistics released last week.

Bigger than just Michigan

Worthy acknowledged that any problems with the rape kits existed before Evans was tapped as police chief, but she said in her letter that an outside agency should lead any investigation. Without independent eyes, the situation "is a huge problem for us, the bench and other parties in the criminal justice system," she wrote.

State Police spokeswoman Shannon Akans said Monday that it's up to the Detroit Police Department to request an audit. No request has been made.

"We don't know how many of the kits were analyzed or not analyzed," Akans said.

Worthy also raised questions in her letter about the department's practices in entering information in rape and other criminal cases into a national DNA databank.

William Winters III, president of the Wayne County Criminal Defense Bar Association, said Worthy's concerns are justified, given the lab's history and the implications for the national databank. "This can affect the whole country," Winters said.

Copyright 2009 Detroit Free Press

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