Story by: Sam DeGrave
ASHEVILLE — Two decades-old rape cases in Fayetteville. A 40-year-old rape case in Charlotte. A 29-year-old rape case in Winston Salem.
All were closed within the last year due to DNA evidence that sat untested until a statewide inventory turned up a backlog of 15,000 sexual-assault evidence collection kits across North Carolina and spurred action, according to state Attorney General Josh Stein.
Asheville doesn’t yet have a conviction to add to Stein’s list of cold cases cracked after sexual-assault kit testing. But police are working hard to change that.
In the year since the Asheville Police Department determined it had 573 backlogged kits of its own, the agency has submitted 406 kits for testing — catching the attention of the attorney general.
“That’s a lot, and I commend them,” Stein recently told the Citizen Times after publicly praising APD on social media.
“Every time we do this exercise we’re sending a message to two important groups. To the victims, we’re saying the crime against them matters, we care and we’re going to bring justice. And to the rapists, we’re saying we’re going to do everything in our power to hold them accountable.”
Stein wasn’t able to say whether APD — which has submitted close to 95 percent of all testable kits — has submitted more kits than any other agency across the state; Charlotte and Fayetteville have been working hard as well, Stein said.
APD is, however, among the agencies leading the effort to clear the backlog, according to the attorney general.
In Asheville, the recent testing of hundreds of kits has provided leads in sexual assault cases that had previously stalled, according to police Lt. Sean Aardema.
During the past year, the department has dedicated one of its two victim services coordinators solely to the processing of old sexual-assault kits for testing. The state crime lab requires agencies to submit with each kit a narraitve of the case, which takes time to compile, Aardema said.
APD has also assigned a detective to investigate any leads turned up after testing.
Aardema and police Spokeswoman Christina Hallingse said that there are a number of reasons why APD left sexual-assault kits sitting untested in evidence. Limited funding and strict state standards, which have since been loosened, played important roles, according to Aardema.
Though he pointed out that the sexual-assault kit backlog is a problem facing law enforcement agencies in other states for myriad reasons, he didn’t pass the buck.
“We understand that there are some really strong feelings and maybe some resentment among survivors and other members of the community about not only the backlog here but across the country; this isn’t a problem unique to just Asheville,” he said.
“We’re not here to make excuses. We’re not here to have a debate; there’ may come a time for that, but right now we’re devoting a relatively significant amount of resources to dealing with this because it’s the right thing to do.”
In December, APD charged Gerald Davis with second-degree forcible rape in connection with an 11-year-old case. DNA from a previously untested sexual-assault kit had, in November, matched the genetic profile of Davis stored in the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Combined DNA Index System.
Police have yet to arrest Davis, whom they believe to be in Eastern North Carolina. Court proceedings against him can’t proceed until he is in custody.
So far, Davis is the only person APD has charged using evidence from a previously untested sexual assault kit. But Aardema told the Citizen Times that other tests have yielded hits in the FBI’s DNA database, giving the detective something to work with.
“There’s been several at this point that we can’t bring charges on yet, but we’re in the process of trying to do so,” he said. “There’s a host of reasons why these cases can be difficult, but at the end of the day it’s a job that needs to be done and one that we’re going to do.”
When APD began sorting through its untested sexual-assault kits following the statewide inventory last spring, Robin Sersland played an important role in the process.
Sersland serves as the program director for Our Voice, a non-profit crisis intervention and prevention agency which serves victims of sexual violence out of Buncombe County’s Family Justice Center.
Processing and sending off several hundred kits over the span of months proved difficult for police but the initiative also presented challenges for Our Voice.
The nonprofit helped APD determine the best practices for communicating with the sexual-assault survivors tied to each kit in a trauma-informed and survivor-centered manner, according to Sersland.
Reaching out to survivors about traumatic experiences years later can reopen old wounds and in some cases even create safety concerns, depending on whether that person is still with the alleged perpetrator or in an unstable housing situation, Sersland said.
These were all concerns that APD had to take into consideration as it began the necessary task of clearing the backlog, Serlsland said.
“One thing that’s pretty consistent among survivors is that they want to be believed and bringing charges against somebody is the system more or less saying ‘We believe you; we believe that this happened,'” Sersland said.
“I know that the DA’s office and law enforcement have a high bar to clear, but those charges send a clear message that survivors were believed.”
As APD continues to submit sexual-assault kits for testing and to pursue any leads yielded as a result, Sersland said it’s important for survivors who have a kit involved in the process not to lose faith if charges haven’t yet been brought in their case.
Some kits are still awaiting testing, some suspects are being investigated and in some cases the testing simply might not result in actionable leads, such as a hit in the FBI database.
Even in those instances, Sersland said, sexual-assault kits have provided a useful service in that they have added new DNA profiles to the system that could one day help identify a serial offender — one of the main reasons behind the nationwide push to test backlogged kits wherever they exist.
“Even if survivors don’t hear from police, that evidence is helping somebody else’s case potentially; it’s definitely an important process,” Sersland said.
The U.S. Department of Justice in the fall granted North Carolina $2 million, half of which was to be allocated to the testing of about 1,400 sexual assault kits.
Gov. Roy Cooper’s Crime Commission allocated an additional $2 million to help clear the backlog, allowing for a total of about 4,200 kits to be tested.
Stein is hoping that the General Assembly will allocate more money for sexual assault kit testing during this legislative session. His office’s Survivor Act, which is moving through the lower chamber as HB 29 and the upper chamber as SB 46, calls for $6 million over the next two years for the matter.
“We know that we need another $6 million of $7 million to complete the outsourcing of these kits for testing to eliminate the backlog once and for all,” Stein said.
The $3 million currently available for sexual-assault kit testing, Stein said, is being doled out on a first-come-first-served basis — a fact Aardema said APD is well aware of.
“When all that came to pass, we decided to act as quickly as we could to take advantage of that,” Aardema said.
So far, Asheville — which accounted for about 3 percent of the statewide backlog — has claimed about 10 percent of the funding available for sexual-assault kit testing in its effort to clear its backlog.
“The Asheville Police Department is taking sexual assault seriously with the resources they’re allocating to do this,” Sersland said.
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