• U.S.

In Hot Pursuit of Cold Cases

11 minute read

On a warm June day in 2006, a man approached a 27-year-old deaf woman at a Detroit bus stop. Impersonating a police officer, he displayed a fake siren and offered her a ride home. When she got in the car, he pulled her into the backseat. Then he raped her.

Unlike most sexual-assault victims in the U.S., the woman reported the attack. She allowed doctors to probe and photograph her body to collect DNA samples from anywhere the rapist might have left a trace of skin, hair or semen. The swabs, images and other evidence were packed into a white cardboard kit the size of a child’s shoebox. Then the kit was left in a police evidence room, where it sat untouched for six years. When the kit was finally sent to a lab in 2012, her rapist’s DNA was linked to four other reported rapes.

That long-lost kit was no fluke. In 2009, Detroit Assistant Prosecutor Robert Spada found more than 11,000 rape kits in an abandoned police warehouse in Detroit. Some had been there for 30 years, long past the statute of limitations on prosecution. Each kit represented a victim whose case never made it to trial: a 12-year-old boy kidnapped at a gas station; a pair of girlfriends returning from a family party; a 36-year-old woman found beaten to death with a brick after she was raped. “Not much shocks me anymore, but that was shocking to me,” says Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy of the backlog. “These are potentially 11,000 victims, and we should bring them justice if we possibly can.”

Since the discovery, Worthy, 56, has been at the forefront of a national push to test backlogged rape kits and investigate and prosecute cold cases. This might seem like a futile task in a debt-ridden city that has been known as the “murder capital of America.” But Worthy is no ordinary prosecutor. In 2004, she became the first woman and the first African American to hold the job, and just four years later she charged the city’s then mayor Kwame Kilpatrick with eight felonies, which led to his resignation and eventual imprisonment.

Worthy’s office has already tested 3,231 of Detroit’s backlogged kits, which helped prosecutors identify 87 serial rapists across 24 different states. And it’s become a model for what might be accomplished elsewhere. The Justice Department estimated in 2003 that hundreds of thousands of kits remain untested nationwide, a number that in May prompted the U.S. House to authorize $41 million to test and prosecute backlogged rape kits. The Senate has yet to act, but Worthy is hopeful that more money will be coming from Washington. “I call sexual assault the stepchild of violent crime,” she says. “There needs to be a global shift, a culture change surrounding [rape].”

A Criminal Lost and Found

A grassroots movement to investigate forgotten sexual-assault cases has spread across the country in the five years since the discovery in the Detroit police warehouse. According to End the Backlog, a rape-kit-tracking program based in New York, Memphis has more than 12,000 untested kits, Dallas has more than 4,000, and Phoenix has nearly 3,000. Most cities test backlogged kits only after a push from advocacy groups, but in Detroit that motivation came straight from Worthy. “The fact that this was spearheaded by the prosecutor was unusual,” says Debi Cain, executive director of the Michigan Domestic and Sexual Violence Prevention and Treatment Board. “Many of them had timed out the statute of limitations. The easiest thing to do would have been to walk away.”

That seemed to sum up Detroit’s attitude in the past. Rape investigations were clearly not a top priority for local law-enforcement officials. “The police at the time felt it was perfectly natural for them to write totally derogatory things in the police file about the victim,” Worthy says. One 2006 police report about a 14-year-old who claimed she was raped in an abandoned house read: “This heffer is trippin … she was clean and smellin good, ain’t no way that sh-t happen like she said. She knew her mama was gon be looking fo her cause she was pose to be home at 7 … the jig was up.” Says Dr. Rebecca Campbell, who is working with Worthy’s office on a research project for the National Institute of Justice: “These are the cases the police just didn’t care about–young black women, poor black women. What money the police had, they did not put here.”

By contrast, Worthy assembled a special team to work on the cold cases, but she could afford only one full-time investigator and two full-time assistant prosecutors dedicated to the backlog. Worthy and her team personally cross-referenced the kits with police reports in order to match each one to an old, incomplete investigation.

Nothing about the process is quick or easy. Once a kit is pulled off the shelf, it’s sent to one of two privately contracted forensic laboratories where the DNA is extracted from the skin, hair and semen samples collected from the victim, a process that can take anywhere from half a day to a week. Then the DNA is sequenced, which can take three to four weeks, and that DNA profile is entered into an FBI database called CODIS (for Combined DNA Index System), where it may be matched to an offender who has committed crimes in other states. If there is a match, Worthy and her team decide how to prioritize the investigation, depending on the statute of limitations, their ability to find the victim and whether the offender is currently in custody or at large.

If prosecutors decide to move forward, Detroit police detective Anne Kanitra notifies the victim that authorities are reopening her case. This can be traumatizing as well; years after a rape, victims often have no desire to relive the nightmare, much less go through a lengthy and difficult prosecution. “We want to give [victims] an out if they didn’t tell their families,” Kanitra says. “We don’t want the whole family asking, ‘Why are the police here? Why are they talking to you?'”

But if they agree, and they usually do, Kanitra works with victims to gather additional evidence to corroborate their stories, which often involves digging through old police files and tracking down witnesses who may have moved to other states. Once they collect enough evidence, Worthy’s team of assistant prosecutors bring the case to trial.

Of course, nothing is certain. After so many years, both victims and potential witnesses can be hard to find, especially because so many people have left Detroit in the past decade. And even when a victim is located, it can be hard to convince a jury with years-old evidence. Suzette Samuels, one of the prosecutors assigned to the backlogged kits, says the accuracy of a victim’s memory is sometimes questioned during trial. “I tell jurors there’s a big difference between attacking someone’s memory and attacking their credibility,” Samuels says. “Usually some detail is lost, but the meat and potatoes, the main aspects of the assault, really do remain.”

Worthy’s overall approach is “victim-centered, trauma-informed, offender-focused”–phrases that are something of a mantra in her office. It’s one of several ways her approach to sexual-assault cases differs from past practices. Detective Kanitra never wears a uniform when she’s contacting a survivor. In a patterned top and with a badge hung loosely around her neck, she looks more like a social worker than a cop. As she puts it, “We have a special team here that is awesome at putting together a case and explaining to a jury, ‘O.K., we don’t have the CSI video and things like that, but this is what we do have, and it’s a good solid case. It’s more difficult, but it’s certainly not impossible.'”

Since 2010, Worthy has won 14 convictions of 10 serial rapists on the basis of DNA from the backlogged kits. Almost as important is the DNA testing that continues: when Worthy’s office ran the DNA evidence from the first 1,600 kits through the FBI’s database, 2 out of every 3 kits produced a DNA match with a crime, often a rape, from elsewhere in the U.S. That usually means that cops can establish a link between multiple rapes and start bringing serial predators to justice. “By testing these rape kits,” explained Vice President Joe Biden, a proponent of additional funds for backlog testing, “we can identify serial rapists, put them behind bars and bring the ultimate nightmare of the woman raped to an end.”

“It’s Not About Me”

If worthy is more attuned to victims than some of her predecessors, it’s no accident. She’s a rape survivor herself. In her early 20s, during her first year of law school, Worthy went out for a jog to blow off some steam while studying for exams. She was attacked from behind and sexually assaulted but never reported her rape to the police. “I believed all the stereotypes of rape victims that still hold true today, like you’re not taken seriously, nobody’s gonna believe you,” she explains matter-of-factly. “I regret it, because what if he went on to rape somebody else?”

But at the time, Worthy says, she wasn’t focused on what her attacker might do; she was motivated by what she wanted to do. “I thought that if I let myself get bogged down in that trauma and didn’t try to push it out of my mind, then I would never make it through law school,” she says. “And I was singly directed by getting out of law school and being a lawyer.”

Born in Oklahoma in 1957, Worthy moved around the country because of her father’s Army job. Her mother died when she was 17, in a medical procedure gone wrong, which Worthy now calls “malpractice.” That was during her first year at the University of Michigan; she went on to the University of Notre Dame for law school and then found work in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, Michigan’s busiest.

The job was never easy. She once worked with a man who called the female prosecutors “hobbyists.” But under the mentorship of former prosecutor John O’Hair, Worthy flourished. “To have the American system of justice really work, you have to have true diversity in every aspect of the system,” she says. “Not just defense lawyers or police officers. You need them on the prosecutorial side too.”

In 1994, Worthy became a judge on the Wayne County circuit court, which handles drugs, robberies, murders and rapes. It was the same year she lost her first child, born at 23 weeks, to kidney failure. She sat on the bench for 10 years before resigning to become Wayne County prosecutor.

Worthy took over in 2004, right before Detroit entered its financial tailspin. Amid ongoing funding disputes with the county executive’s office, Worthy went around the country raising funds to prosecute Detroit crime. She says her office has lost almost 100 staffers since 2012, most of them lawyers, which left her with 1,000 backed-up warrants. (Nearly a third are child-abuse cases.) Her own car has been burglarized twice in the past two months. Worthy is undaunted. “Even though people perceive you as doing a lot,” she says, “I always feel like I’m not doing enough.”

She is now a single mother of three adopted daughters, a 17-year-old and 5-year-old twins. As her oldest child approaches college, Worthy says she’s becoming more concerned about campus sexual assault, which is extremely underreported at most schools. “I want to make sure that these rapes are getting addressed,” she says, adding that she might try to tackle that problem next.

While successfully prosecuting ex-mayor Kilpatrick years ago, Worthy was sometimes accused of positioning herself for higher office. But there is no evidence that she is tempted today, not while this backlog remains. Is it painful to think of her own rape as she unearths so many similar stories? Worthy says no, because, she explains, “worse things have happened.” Her rape has never been a secret, she says, adding that it’s just background noise compared with the 11,000 victims whose kits were discarded. “It’s not about me,” she says. “It’s about them.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Write to Charlotte Alter/Detroit at charlotte.alter@time.com