Kym Worthy was a first-year law student at the University of Notre Dame when she was raped. A man approached her from behind as she jogged one night, throwing a cloth over her head and pulling her to the ground. That was some 30 years ago; she never reported the attack. “Things were different then,” she says. “And I was young.”
Abigail Pesta on why rape kits are a 'low priority' for police.
Today Worthy is a prosecutor in Detroit, with a much different perspective. Her decision not to report the crime, she says, was “all justification and rationalization.” Now she is on a singular mission: seeking justice for people who do report their rapes. She’s leading a charge to get more than 11,000 police rape kits—which contain swabs of semen, saliva, and other evidence—tested for DNA in her city, and to establish a road map for other U.S. cities to do the same. In Detroit the kits had piled up, ignored for years, in a police storage facility, until one of Worthy’s colleagues discovered them in 2009.
“I was flabbergasted,” says Worthy, recalling the day she found out about the scandal. “When victims go through a three-hour-plus rape-kit exam, they expect police to use the evidence to catch the rapist.”
Worthy studied up and quickly learned that this wasn’t just a Detroit problem, but a nationwide blind spot. Cities across the country had reported stacks of kits: 11,000 in San Antonio, 1,200 in Albuquerque, 4,000 in Houston, according to Sarah Tofte, who has studied rape-kit pile-ups for Human Rights Watch. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of untested kits are languishing in police storage facilities.
Part of the reason for the clog is the price of testing the kits. Each kit can cost an average of $1,200 to $1,500, as technicians need to extract and separate DNA from two people—the victim and the assailant—from a swab, says Tofte, who writes about the issue in the new Human Rights Watch book, The Unfinished Revolution. But resources aren’t always to blame, she says; often the kits are simply a low priority for police.
That was the case in Detroit, Worthy believes. “I wrote a very terse letter to the police chief at the time” to demand action, she says, but received no reply. “Someone in the police department leaked it to the press. Then the police chief called.” With the help of local and state grants, Worthy then teamed up with the police, sexual-assault experts, and Michigan State University to launch an effort called the 400 Project, which would do a statistical analysis of 400 randomly selected kits. The goal: to make projections about the full collection, such as how many kits had exceeded the statute of limitations.
So far, two men—Antonio Jackson and Eric Taliaferro—are going to court this spring as a result of the study. Both men allegedly broke into women’s homes and sexually assaulted them at gunpoint.
In 2011 Worthy learned of a new program at the National Institute of Justice in which cities could apply for a federal grant to study their rape kits. She applied and received one of two such first-time grants, the other going to Houston. The Detroit grant, worth $1 million, covers a review of all 11,303 of the city’s kits, but not tests of all the kits. Worthy plans to use the results of the study to establish a blueprint for other cities.
She says she would have been drawn to this pursuit regardless of whether she herself had been raped, but that her experience gives her a unique perspective. “When victims tell me they can’t really remember everything that happened, I understand that,” she says. “I can’t remember exactly what happened to me either. I honestly can’t tell you if it happened fast or what was going through my mind.” The attack occurred on a jogging trail near her apartment complex in South Bend, Ind. Worthy had gone out for a run one night after studying for final exams, in the hopes of relieving stress. “He never said a word,” she says of her rapist. “I never saw his face.”
She says the incident is “something you never forget,” but not something she dwells on. “I come from a military family—I am not an overly emotional person,” she says. “I told my friends and my family what happened, but I picked up and I went on.” She thinks the ordeal made her a better prosecutor. “There are things you are dealt that strengthen or weaken you later on,” she says. “It made me stronger.”
Worthy, a single mother of a 14-year-old daughter, Anastasia, and 3-year-old adopted twins, Anniston and Alessandra, is the first African-American and the first woman to serve as Wayne County Prosecutor.
Her next challenge is finding the funds to finish testing all the kits in Detroit. “It’s a massive undertaking,” she says, but other cities have done it, including New York, which tested 16,000 kits. “If rape victims are willing to come forward, they need to know they’re being taken seriously.”