Stopping Rape's Ticking Clock

Maryland moves to preserve evidence often lost in attack's aftermath

April 06, 2008|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,Sun Reporter

For years, authorities have faced a serious problem in sexual assault cases: Victims often do not report the crime for several days, and by then, it's too late to gather crucial medical evidence.

Now two Maryland counties are experimenting with so-called "Jane Doe" rape examination kits, which allow victims to have DNA and other evidence from an assault collected and stored, without involving police. The materials are sealed and stored in case the victim changes her mind and reports the attack.

Victims' advocates say the new program -- which will become available statewide in January -- gives victims time to recover from the initial trauma of a sexual assault and to carefully weigh a decision about pursuing criminal charges.

After thinking it over, more will report the crime, said Jennifer Pollitt Hill, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Jane Doe programs address "the problem of law enforcement being the gatekeeper. [Under the current system], if victims don't want to deal with law enforcement and change their mind tomorrow, we've lost evidence."

The statewide expansion of Jane Doe programs, now available in Cecil and Allegany counties, was triggered by a federal initiative. States that don't adopt such programs by Jan. 9 will lose some federal funds.

About 62 percent of rapes and sexual assaults across the U.S. in 2005 were not reported, according to the most recent Department of Justice statistics. Among the attacks that were reported, delayed reporting was the norm, said Gail Reid, director of the emergency program at Turnaround, an organization that serves sexual assault victims in Baltimore City and County.

"When a victim comes to the hospital, they are traumatized," Pollitt Hill said. "They just want to go home and go to bed. They don't want to deal with police, the long length and wait.

"But then they go home, and wake up the next day. They've showered, eaten, used the bathroom and smoked, and basically ruined all of the evidence, and they change their mind. And there's nothing we can do for them" in terms of gathering DNA.

Such delays can hamper a criminal case. In Jane Doe cases, prosecutors say they likely will lose other evidence from the location of the attack, such as fingerprints or bloody sheets, and serial rapists will have time to target more victims.

"The ability to interview people at the scene, to find people who may have seen or heard something, is compromised," said Leo Ryan, a deputy state's attorney in Baltimore County. "Memory fades."

For a Jane Doe report to even be an option, victims must get to a hospital within three days of an assault. Otherwise, everyday activities will destroy bodily fluids, and over time, tears, cuts and bruises will heal.

Given that short time frame, anonymous reporting will not overwhelm the system, said Joyce Miller, a forensic nurse coordinator at Baltimore's Mercy Medical Center, where all adult rape victims in the city are examined.

Mercy conducted 183 rape exams in 2006 and expects an increase of about 50 cases per year once the Jane Doe program launches, Miller said. Currently, Mercy nurses do not collect evidence unless police authorize it, and some victims may request a Jane Doe exam when police decline to pursue the case.

"That's between the detectives and the victim," Miller said. "The story has to meet the elements of a crime. ... Some of them decide to go home."

The Western Maryland Health System has stored rape kits from five Jane Does since its program started Dec. 1, 2005, said Debi Wolford, a nurse and the forensic program coordinator at the Cumberland hospital. None of the women has returned to report the crime, she said.

"I want them all to report, and we try that first," Wolford said. "We talk to them about who would be responding to the hospital. We tell them a little bit about what we know about the police process.

"If they say, `No, no, no,' then we tell them about Jane Doe. They don't all take that either. Some of them just don't want to reflect backward. They don't want to think about it."

Allegany County's Combined Criminal Investigation Unit is holding one Jane Doe kit now, Wolford said. Swabs of bodily fluids, detailed descriptions of injuries, clothing, and hair clippings are stored in 14- by 11-inch sealed white envelopes.

The forensic nurse signs the seal to prevent tampering, and Wolford said a letter is paper-clipped to the front of the kit, a portion of which reads: "Please do not open, destroy or send to the Maryland State Police Crime Lab. A forensic nurse examiner from the Western Maryland Health System will notify you of the date to destroy if the victim has not reported within the time period."

Under the new program, each locality can determine how long its Jane Doe medical evidence is retained. Cecil and Allegany counties store the evidence for 90 days, but Baltimore police want to refrigerate the kits for about one year, said Sterling Clifford, a department spokesman.

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