I picked up the TIME magazine pictured above at an airport kiosk some time ago. While traveling that day, I lingered over this inspiring—and disturbing—story about Kym Worthy. It is true that some leaders find their calling early and some crusaders know their mission almost from birth. Others come to leadership by accident or they pick up the mantle of responsibility simply because no one else will. Perhaps Kym Worthy falls more into the latter group, but she is no less driven because of it. In fact, she is an example of how one person can have a massive impact on the life of another person, a community, and a national conversation.
In 2009, Detroit Assistant Prosecutor Robert Spada discovered over 11,000 unprocessed rape kits in an abandoned Detroit police warehouse. As Michigan’s Wayne County prosecutor, Kym Worthy couldn’t help but be shocked by this discovery. As she told Katie Couric, “These [rape kits] were women’s lives. They go through this examination thinking that this evidence was going to help find their perpetrator. And it’s sitting on a shelf, gathering dust. And this was their life—and nobody cared.”
Since that discovery, Worthy—herself a survivor of rape—has made national headlines for her work, bringing attention to the nationwide backlog of untested rape kits. She has worked at the local and national level to fight for funding to have the kits tested, eventually receiving a $1 million federal grant to begin testing Detroit’s massive backlog. Worthy said that she and her team had to literally dust off the kits, physically open and inventory each one to collect victim information. The statute of limitations on many of the cases had long since passed. Still, Worthy’s team manually cross-referenced the kits with police reports and incomplete investigations. DNA evidence is only one component of any case—and each of these cases had to be re-established and reinvestigated (or, sadly, investigated for the first time).
As a result of Worthy and her team’s hard work, over 3,200 of Detroit’s unprocessed rape kits have been tested, helping prosecutors identify nearly 90 serial rapists across 24 states. She has won 14 convictions of 10 serial rapists based on evidence retrieved from backlogged kits. Worthy and her team have created a model for how rape cases can be investigated and prosecuted nationwide. And the testing and investigations continue. According to this TIME magazine article, during Worthy’s initial set of testing, 2 out of 3 kits produced a DNA match with another crime from somewhere else in the United States. “That usually means that cops can establish a link between multiple rapes and start bringing serial predators to justice.”
Kym Worthy’s successes are not slowing her down. The more evidence she uncovers, the more driven she and her team seem to become. The Detroit News quoted her as saying, “We have over 100 people that have come to the city of Detroit, gotten away with rape and gone on to rape others… This is not a Detroit-only problem. They have gone on to rape with impunity.”
When survivors of sexual assault report their rape, the process of collecting evidence is lengthy and invasive. But, when tested, rape kits can reveal DNA evidence that has the potential to solve—and prevent—crime. Not only can this evidence help identify suspects, it can confirm a survivor’s account and can connect a suspect to other potential crimes. It can also exonerate innocent suspects. Experts estimate that there are certainly hundreds of thousands of similarly untested rape kits in police storage facilities across the United States.
We don’t know the extent of the rape kit backlog in Alabama. Only three states—Colorado, Illinois, and Texas—track and count collected rape kits. Because few states require tracking of the kits, it is hard for any state or community to know if they even have a backlog, let alone how large such a backlog may be. The existence of so many untested rape kits across the country often allows criminals to go unpunished and, often, rape again.
While rape kit testing may not be the solution to solving all rape cases, the evidence collected can certainly move cases forward, with the hope of preventing future crimes. Kym Worthy and her contemporaries continue to advocate for such testing. In the case of sexual assault investigation, information truly is empowering. To find information on rape kit backlogs in your state, visit endthebacklog.org.
Listen to more here: Years Delayed, Detroit Starts Testing Rape Kits For Evidence