Trigger warning: This article contains details of rape and sexual assault that may be upsetting. For anyone in the NWGA region who is struggling with rape, sexual assault, abuse and its associated effects (PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc.) please reach out to the Sexual Assault Center of NWGA (www.sacnwga.org) or find your nearest crisis center (https://centers.rainn.org/).

Breaking Down the Backlog: Testing Kits & Prosecuting Rape Cases

Misty Pledger can’t hide her frustration when she goes through the details of a rape case she worked over two years ago.

The Floyd County Police Sergeant leans forward in her office chair from behind her desk and flexes her hands, recalling a young woman who came to the FCPD and the Sexual Assault Center of Northwest Georgia for help.

“She was from out of town and had been visiting a friend,” says Sgt. Pledger. “They were partying with a group of people and she woke up the next morning and said, ‘I feel like I’ve had sex. I didn’t consent to sex. I was (passed) out, but I feel like I’ve had sex.’”

This wasn’t Sgt. Pledger’s first rodeo handing sexual assault and rape cases. Regionally, Police officers go through extensive trainings with the SAC, and she followed protocol to the letter. At the SAC, the victim underwent a thorough exam in order to produce evidence for a rape kit and days later, Pledger questioned her to collect as much information as possible. The kit was sent to the Crime Lab at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and the young lady went on with her life.

Two years later, Sgt. Pledger received the report back from the GBI.

“I got results back from the DNA for a rape that happened two years ago. The report lists male semen and a name attached to it. It’s one of the names she gave me from a list of people who were at that party, but I can’t find her now to see if she wants to press charges. I’m not even sure where she is at this point.”

“There’s a long waiting period to get kit results back,” adds Sgt. Pledger. “When it comes back, the crime scene is gone. The victim’s gone. The perp’s probably gone. How am I going to take that before a jury?”

Unfortunately, this situation happens more often than not. Law enforcement officials are faced with the vexation of receiving forensic evidence results months and sometimes more than a year after a rape or assault occurred. A backlog of untested rape kits weighing down the resources of crime labs is the reason for the wait.

Drowning in Kits, Cranking out Results

As Kim Davis, director of the SAC of NWGA explained in Part I of this series, Georgia passed a law in 2016 that requires law enforcement to send all rape kits to the GBI, whether the victim presses charges or not. That law was Senate Bill 304 and went into effect on July 1, 2016.

In January 2017, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that 10,314 rape kits were waiting to be tested at the GBI. In April of 2018 less than 2,900 of those were left, according to the Associated Press.

Nelly Miles, the Director of the Office for Public Affairs at the GBI tells V3 Magazine that many of the kits identified at the end of 2016 and the beginning of 2017 fell into different categories.

“We had a group of kits that came in from throughout the state because of the passing of SB 304. There were several thousand of those untested kits,” Miles says.

According to Miles, other kits had been accumulating because at the time those assaults happened, technology was not advanced enough for the testing process.

“We had another group (of kits) that came in,” says Miles. “These were identified as really old kits that were collected when we didn’t have the technology (for testing), so we had to go through those to find out if prosecutors still wanted us to test them now that the technology existed. We’re talking kits from way, way back.”

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The GBI targeted those older kits, Miles explains, and were able to test them and issue their reports back to law enforcement in a timely manner. More scientists and staff were hired in order to make that happen, she says.

The remaining kits that added to the backlog were part of the GBI’s active, ongoing cases. Miles says that on average, the crime lab receives 300 new rape kits each month.

“We have a backlog that we’re still working through,” says Miles. “For us, it’s been two years of heavy emphasis because of the passing of SB 304. These kits have been a priority for our agency.”

As far as whether more resources are needed to place a higher emphasis on statewide sexual assault cases, Miles was on the fence.

“I don’t know how much more we could do because we’re doing everything we can,” she says.

Davis, however, notes that some states have a second crime lab dedicated entirely to crimes of sexual assault or at least a special victims unit within law enforcement agencies.

“That’s why there’s a backlog,” Davis says. “There’s only one crime lab in the state of Georgia and it’s not specified to just rape or just murder… we’re looking at 6 months, sometimes a year before rape kit results come back. The earliest I’ve seen one come back was in three months.”

“I’m sure if the GBI had more funding they could open more facilities and employ more scientists,” echoes Sgt. Pledger. “That would solve a lot.”

“911. What’s your emergency?”

Whether law enforcement in Floyd County gets called to the hospital, the scene of a sexual assault crime, or if a rape victim walks into the police department, their priority is the victim and getting them to the SAC, Sgt. Pledger explains.

“My first concern is their health and their safety,” explains Sgt. Pledger. “Let them get into the SAC and make sure they’re taken care of medically. I’ll get the basic information. ‘Where were you? Who was it? Did you know the person?’ That way I can go process the scene if I need to.”

The topic of sexual assault has been a growing presence throughout the years and law enforcement participation in sexual assault trainings has led to better results. For example, victims should not be thoroughly questioned about the assault until they’ve had time to sleep and cope.

“We urge detectives to give the victim three sleep cycles before questioning,” says Davis. “At first, just get the gist and then come back in three days and do your full interview because then you’re going to get a more accurate story.”

This is because during a traumatic event, the brain is overloaded with information and can’t process everything right away, as detailed in Part I of this series.

“A lot of times, if you wait a day or two and let them sleep, more details come back,” continues Pledger. “Especially if it’s a traumatic situation like that. I get them in the hands of the SAC, let them process it, and then sit down for the full interview.”

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After interviewing the victim, the next step is interviewing the alleged perpetrator, says Sgt. Pledger, but depending on what they say, it’s usually his word against her’s (or his against his, or her’s against her’s).

“Then we have to find the evidence,” she says. “Sometimes it’s physical evidence, circumstantial, witnesses, or anything to corroborate what the victim is telling us. It’s just usually, when it comes to rape, it’s one person’s word against the other. It comes down to the evidence we wait to get back from the GBI.”

Another negative factor for law enforcement? The fact that many victims are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they were assaulted.

“Ninety-nine percent of my rape cases are going to be females who have intentionally impaired themselves in some way,” says Sgt. Pledger. “Drugs. Meth. ‘I was smoking meth with this guy and I think he raped me.’ It makes it way more difficult.”

However, the Rape and Incest National Network says anyone under the influence of drugs or alcohol cannot consent to sex. This tried-and-true rule of consent is taught by SAC advocates in their Safe Date curriculum at middle and high schools throughout NWGA for sexual assault prevention education.

The Jury is Out

Rape cases are notoriously difficult to take to court, says Sgt. Pledger, because most times when a rape occurs, only the victim and the perpetrator are present to witness it.

“I’ve never had one go all the way to a true trial,” she says. “We very rarely get a rape report anyway. We might get one a month.”

Few people report rapes, says Davis, and one reason is because the victim expects the legal system to fail them one way or another when time is of the essence.

“I think it’s having to wait on kit results and having to wait on the court system,” says Davis. “Some of these cases don’t go to trial for a year. My nurses are getting subpoenaed for cases from 2016 and 2017, and most victims know that. If you do the research, you’ll see most cases don’t make it to court and only 1 in 6 perpetrators ever spend a day in jail. It’s discouraging.”

Victims of crime distrusting the legal system isn’t anything new, and when it comes to sexual assault, sometimes there’s reliable data to back up that notion. In November of 2018, The Center for Investigative Reporting, Newsy and ProPublica released a report in two parts based on data gathered from more than 60 law enforcement agencies across the country.

After analyzing more than 70,000 rape cases, the data revealed that agencies are inflating rape case clearance rates, making it appear as though they have solved a significant number of rape cases, whereas they only simply closed the case and the perpetrator walked free.

“Law enforcement agencies are able to declare cases resolved through what’s known as ‘exceptional clearance,’” the report states. “Federal guidelines allow police to use the classification when they have enough evidence to make an arrest and know who and where the suspect is, but can’t make an arrest for reasons outside their control.”

An example of an acceptable use of exceptional clearance would be if the perpetrator died before officials were able to arrest them. The process of exceptional clearance is meant to be used sparingly. The report showed that “almost half of the agencies (in the study) cleared more rape cases through exceptional means than by actually arresting a suspect in 2016.”

This made it seem as though they’d solved more rape cases than they actually had.

In addition to reports of that nature, rape and sexual assault cases are difficult to take to court because of Georgia’s definition of “rape.”

“If you look at the law in Georgia, as opposed to the law in other states, we’re so back in the 1970s with it. It’s just terrible,” says Davis. “In Georgia, it’s ‘forced and against her will’ where in most states, it’s ‘forced or against her will.’”

This means that you have to prove the victim said no and that the rapist physically forced her into having sex.

“It’s weird how it’s written,” says Sgt. Pledger. “If you can’t give consent, you can’t give consent. If you come to me and say ‘I was (passed) out. I was unconscious and he had sex with me,’ to me, that’s rape.”

Sgt. Pledger says the FCPD relies heavily on the SAC for their help and guidance with cases of rape and sexual assault. Similarly, Davis says she feels the SAC has a good relationship with law enforcement in the NWGA counties the crisis organization serves.

“I feel supported by law enforcement,” says Davis.

At the end of the day, Sgt. Pledger says she hopes victims of sexual assault will come forward and report the crime so they themselves can get help, and in turn, help others.

“It’s never the victim’s fault,” says Sgt. Pledger. “It’s nobody’s fault but the rapist’s. If this person has done this to you, they are going to do it to somebody else.  We’ve got to stand up for each other and fight for each other.”

Part III of the Breaking Down the Backlog series explores the psychological reasons why rapists rape, the effects of rape on victims, survivorship and healing, and ultimately moving forward. Part III is available on ReadV3.com.