With grant and DNA, DA’s office aims to close unsolved rapes


NEW ORLEANS (AP) — She was a teenage girl – only 16 – when a man took her at gunpoint from a bus stop in Bywater, beat her and raped her behind a shed in July 1986.

New Orleans police collected physical evidence from her. But a year passed, then 10, and eventually more than three decades without an arrest — in part because her rape kit sat untested, one among a large backlog of NOPD cases.

All the while, prosecutors said the woman told them, she remembered every detail about what happened that awful day: her attacker’s face, his voice, his Hawaiian shirt.

That man, prosecutors said, is finally facing charges thanks to a new unit using grant money to prosecute those long-neglected rape kits. Members of New Orleans’ Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Unit, or SAKI Unit, said DNA from previously untested kits helped link Alfred Berry to the woman’s attack — plus five other cold case sexual assaults.

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The unit, part of District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro’s Office, was formed in October, and so far has secured indictments in 11 cases that stemmed from SAKI investigations. The cases date back to the 1980s and 1990s, and were part of a national backlog of untested sexual assault kits that in recent years has received national attention.

“DNA empowers women in rape cases,” said Assistant District Attorney Laura Rodrigue. “It gives them strength in numbers and it’s people all coming together behind them.”

Rodrigue and Mary Glass are the two prosecutors assigned to the SAKI Unit, which also includes an investigator and a victim-witness coordinator. Funded by the Bureau of Justice, the initiative awards competitive grants so cities, police departments and prosecutors can reduce the backlog of untested rape kits, and hopefully provide resolution to the cases.

Angela Williamson, the Bureau of Justice’s senior policy adviser for forensics who oversees the national SAKI program, said generally, sites must spend half of their money on testing, and the other half on initiatives or programs that work toward a solution or resolution to prevent another backlog.

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In New Orleans, that includes committees including victim’s advocates, medical professionals, law enforcement and prosecutors, said Pam Jenkins, a research professor of sociology at the University of New Orleans who helped both NOPD and the DA’s office write proposals to receive SAKI funds.

Cannizzaro’s office received a three-year, $1 million grant in October. NOPD received a $1 million grant in 2015, and an additional $700,000 last year. NOPD’s grant, which is used to pay for kit testing and case investigation, runs through 2020.

When the DA’s office received its grant, Glass said the Bureau of Justice told them they shouldn’t be discouraged if nothing happened in the first few months. Williamson said it takes some sites that long simply to locate kits and ready them for testing.

The New Orleans unit got its first indictment in a month. In addition to 11 cases underway in Criminal District Court, the unit has another 57 cases open, and it is looking into hundreds of CODIS hits.

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Reducing a national backlog

Glass started working on cold case sexual assaults in 2015, because NOPD asked the DA’s office for assistance from a prosecutor who could act as a liaison between the departments. Glass was assigned to that position, even though at the time her office wasn’t receiving federal funds.

“As I started to get more and more involved with it, I realized the prosecution is the caboose of the grant,” she said. “The grant is all about testing for NOPD, but then what do you do? What are you testing these kits for?”

According to the Bureau of Justice, there is no reliable estimate for the number of sexual assault kits that have not been submitted to a crime lab for testing. Its Sexual Assault Kit Initiative website, which lists information about each of the 41 sites that have received funding, shows some cities and police departments had untested rape kits that numbered in the hundreds, some in the thousands.

When NOPD received its grant in 2015, the department said it had a backlog of 179 untested kits. Through the grant, those kits were going to be sent to a private lab for testing, which officials said could be completed faster than if they sent the kits to the State Police lab.

It’s unclear how many of those kits have been tested — NOPD said through a spokesperson that Cmdr. Doug Eckert, who heads their SAKI unit, was unavailable.

Tania Tetlow, chairwoman of the city’s Sexual Violence Response Advisory Committee, said the federal grants have been a “huge help.” She said additional funding for the district attorney’s office means added resources and a stronger partnership between that agency and NOPD.

“I think the hope is that there will be lessons learned from intensely investigating and prosecuting cold cases,” she said. “Victims of sexual assault deserve justice and the community needs to understand there are consequences to rape.”

Williamson said one of the goals of SAKI is for sites to address what caused the backlog and how they can prevent it from happening again.

“It’s one thing to test, but how do we stop this from happening again?” she said. “The whole point of the initiative and approving funding is to test kits and to drive change.”

Nationally, she said a lack of resources was the biggest contributor to the backlog of sexual assault kits. In some cases, she said blood-type testing was done on kits, but no database existed to store that info. When DNA technology became more advanced, Williamson said most police departments didn’t have the staff, time or funds to have someone enter results from old tested kits into the new database.

Law enforcement bias also contributed to the backlog. In the past, Williamson said there was a lot of “misunderstanding” of the way victims responded to sexual assault, and their cases weren’t prioritized. It’s not unusual for a victim to seem incoherent or to have trouble remembering details, she said.

Understanding sexual assault victims’ response has helped police better handle reported rapes, and contributed to an increase in victims coming forward in some cities, according to Williamson. Jenkins said locally she’s noticed a change, too.

“We’re fortunate to be part of something that nationally will change the view of sexual assault and the reactions to it,” she said.

‘She got her closure’

When someone is arrested, a DNA sample is taken and entered into the national CODIS (Combined DNA Index System) database. That wasn’t the case in the ’80s and ’90s, when many of the cold case sexual assaults now being solved took place.

“A lot of these focus on women who just seem to have never gotten justice before, which is heartbreaking,” Rodrigue said.

DNA samples taken from the previously untested sexual assault kits are now being entered into the same database. The kits and DNA samples are then processed at the State Police Crime Lab in Baton Rouge. NOPD and the district attorneys wait to find out about any potential hits or matches.

A “hit” identifies a potential suspect whose DNA is already in the system. A “match” alerts authorities if that person’s DNA was found at another crime scene or in another rape kit. In the cases they’ve investigated so far, Glass and Rodrigue said DNA matches for many of the perpetrators link them to multiple sexual assaults. That’s not uncommon or unexpected, they said.

A grand jury in December indicted Dennis Whitsett on one count each of aggravated kidnapping and aggravated rape. He is accused in a 2006 rape in Central City, and prosecutors said he was linked to the sexual assault by DNA.

Whitsett, 42, has been called a “serial rapist,” and currently is serving time in Michigan for 18 rape and five kidnapping convictions.

In the Central City case, Whitsett is accused of raping a woman April 29, 2006. According to an arrest warrant, Whitsett and another man pulled her into a car while she was walking on Carondelet Street toward Jackson Avenue. They drove her to an unknown location, and Whitsett raped her while the other man held her down, according to the warrant.

Investigators were notified on May 1, 2012 — just over six years after the rape — that Whitsett was a match for DNA found in the woman’s sexual assault kit. The kit was sent to the Louisiana State Police crime lab in 2011, Glass said.

At the time the hit came back, Whitsett was incarcerated at the Muskegon Correctional Facility in Michigan where he was serving time for eight rape and kidnapping convictions in the Detroit area between 2005 and 2006.

Michigan authorities sent a follow-up DNA swab to the Louisiana State Police crime lab in May of 2016 for confirmation, and Glass said he was indicted in 2017.

Williamson said Detroit had a backlog of more than 11,000 rape kits when the Wayne County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office received its SAKI grant in 2015. It since has identified more than 800 serial rapists, she said, and the offenders they’ve located have been connected to cases in 40 different states.

Many grant sites have realized the repercussions of the sexual assault kit backlog, Williamson said, as many of the perpetrators arrested in these cold case rapes have multiple victims.

In New Orleans, many of the offenders the SAKI unit has identified through DNA qualify as “serial rapists,” prosecutors said.

“In our experience, rapists don’t rape once,” Rodrigue said. “If they’ve done it before, the question is do all the women report? If enough have reported then we’re going to have women who can come together against the same perpetrator.”

That only makes the state’s case stronger, she said, adding that rape cases are some of the hardest to take to trial.

If there’s no DNA in a rape case, Rodrigue said the defense usually argues the state has the wrong suspect. If there is DNA, she said the defense usually blames the victim. With multiple DNA matches, “you can take a he-said, she-said and make it a he-said, she-said, she-said, she-said,” Glass said.

In the seven months they’ve been working with the grant, Glass and Rodrigue have had a few success stories. Both said they’ve been able to offer closure to victims who thought their sexual assaults were long forgotten.

In one previously unsolved case from 1989, Glass said she found out the perpetrator, Leonard Compton, died in 2009. A CODIS hit linked Compton to the sexual assault in 2016. The SAKI Unit’s investigator found the victim almost three months ago. Glass said she spoke with the woman, told her the perpetrator was dead, and that her case was solved through DNA. Glass said she also offered the woman assistance from the district attorney’s office to help cope with what happened to her.

“It will never see a courtroom, but she got her closure,” Glass said.

Berry, accused of kidnapping and raping the 16-year-old in 1986, was indicted last month on six counts of rape and six counts of kidnapping in connection with separate attacks on women in 1986 and 1987.

He had gone to trial for two other rapes that occurred in New Orleans in 1987, and a jury acquitted him on both of those charges in 1988. Glass said new DNA results linking Berry to one of those attacks prove he was wrongfully acquitted in that case. Berry can’t be prosecuted again in that case because of double jeopardy laws, but Glass said the state hopes to introduce evidence from those trials in some of the new cases.

At the time of his indictment, Berry, 51, was serving a 99-year prison sentence for a 1988 armed robbery conviction. He was tried on another rape charge in connection with that armed robbery, and Glass said the jury failed to reach a verdict. The DA’s office now has DNA evidence that links Berry to the rape charge that resulted in a mistrial, she said.

Ultimately, Glass and Rodrigue said they hope the SAKI Unit expands. DNA analysis is only going to improve, Rodrigue said, and they hopefully soon will be able to make matches using even less DNA.

“There’s nowhere to go but to grow,” Glass said. “Louisiana has no statute of limitations on rape cases, so we’re going to keep finding cases.”


Information from: The Times-Picayune, http://www.nola.com