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Behind the Story: Two Cleveland reporters raise the issue of rape kits that sat untested for 20 years

Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi wanted an answer to a seemingly simple question: how many untested rape kits did the Cleveland Police Department have in storage?

The answer: “We don’t know.”

The reporters’ question prompted Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine in 2011 to ask all Ohio law enforcement agencies to send their rape kits to labs for testing, some of which had been collecting dust for twenty years.

Two years later, 59 people have been indicted for rapes committed in Cleveland up to two decades ago. In some cases prosecutors had to race against time to file indictments within the 20-year statute of limitations for rape.

The two Cleveland Plain Dealer reporters published a four-part series in August detailing the Cleveland Police Department’s failings twenty years ago, the consequences, and an intimate look at the effects on one victim who was gang-raped when she was 12.

The reporters explain that in the early 90s DNA testing was in its infancy and police were discouraged from testing kits unless there were other leads in the case. If a victim became uncooperative or if the police didn’t trust his or her account, the case would often be dropped.

As a consequence, serial rapists walked free: Dissell and Atassi’s analysis revealed that at least a quarter of those indicted as part of the Attorney General’s initiative were convicted of at least one other sexual offence.

Although the series was heavy on sources Dissell and Atassi interviewed dozens of people for the series – it also involved enterprising data collection. The two reporters compiled and collected records for two datasets: one with information on every tested rape kit since 1993 that has led to an indictment and one documenting every reported rape committed in 1993. They used both Excel and Microsoft Access to create their datasets, parts of which they had to input manually from microfilm. The manual input alone took about four months.

For the third part in the series, Dissell and Atassi collected data on all rape cases in 1993 – the same cases the prosecutor was tackling. To do that, they used police Records Management System data from 1993 to get demographic information, dates of times of reported rapes and names of victims. They also used a county court database to identify 1993 rape cases that were prosecuted and then added data about those cases from more than 200 files on microfiche.

Eventually the Cleveland Police Department eventually gave them data on untested rape kits. They also built a database with more than 20 fields with data on each tested case from 1993 forward that resulted in an indictment.

Since Atassi and Dissell started reporting in 2009, there have been many changes in the way the Cleveland Police Department handles rape cases. Starting in 2010, for example, all the city’s rape kits are sent for testing, regardless of the circumstances surrounding the case. And a victim advocate from the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center now meets with all rape victims at the start of a police investigation.

As a result of these and other changes, there has been a boom in reported rapes, which experts say is a result of victims feeling more comfortable coming forward with their stories. In addition, Cleveland’s Safety Director in 1993 wrote a letter apologizing to Jennifer Moore – a rape victim profiled by Dissell and Atassi – and public officials have demanded answers from police administration as to why the kits went untested for so long.

The problem of untested rape kits isn’t limited to Cleveland, with tens of thousands of them stored in evidence rooms across the nation.

Atassi offered some advice for tackling the issue:

Begin by brainstorming every possible angle on the story and remain well-organized with a spreadsheet noting each possible element, what steps need to be taken and the status. For a great deal of our time working on this project, it seemed our progress hinged on getting certain pieces of information from specific sources. Staying organized and thinking broadly about the subject of rape kits helped us cut our losses and change directions if it didn't seem possible to pull one story together in time. Plan for the project to have legs long after the series launches. We continue to follow each rape kit indictment to its conclusion and write stories fleshing out the trends we see as the statewide initiative unfolds.

Talking with rape victims is daunting, as is asking them for permission to use their names. The fourth part of the series was a profile of Jennifer Moore, who was gang-raped when she was 12. Asked how they got Moore to speak on the record, Atassi said:

We simply put the power in her hands. Many victims, and Moore was no exception, have spent years feeling disempowered by what happened to them at the hands of a violent predator. We began our project by setting a standard that any victim who chooses to share their story through us could do so in whatever way is most comfortable for them. With Moore, we offered the option of relaying her story in anonymity. But having overcome so much in life to gain the courage it takes to fight for justice in her case now, Moore wanted to be heard loud and clear -- to serve as a role model for other women in similar circumstances. She demanded that we use her name and show her face.

Despite the years of work Dissell and Atassi have put into the project, they say they’re not done – not by any means. They continue to collect data as new cases are prosecuted and on kits submitted in response the Attorney General’s request.

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