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'The Mess'

Part 2 Extra: How Memphis Failed

A critic’s perspective of MPD’s historical failure to test rape kits

Memphis and Tennessee trailed several jurisdictions in developing DNA testing as a standard law enforcement tool.

Though states like Florida and Virginia accessed the FBI’s DNA profile suspect database through a pilot program in the early 1990s, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation didn’t gain access to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) until 2002.

Even then, critics believe, Memphis failed:

A rape kit used to collect DNA evidence from rape victims. Samples include vaginal and cervical swabs, pubic hair combings and underwear. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to the Daily Memphian)
A rape kit used to collect DNA evidence from rape victims. Samples include vaginal and cervical swabs, pubic hair combings and underwear. (Karen Pulfer Focht/Special to the Daily Memphian)
  • In 2003, TBI received a $3.4 million National Institute of Justice grant to conduct DNA testing on as many as 2,800 cold cases — homicides, sexual assaults and other violent crimes — for which there was no known suspect. But few police agencies participated; the TBI spent just $537,000 of that money for tests involving 618 cases statewide. Though MPD by then was holding thousands of untested rape kits, it submitted just 254 kits for testing.
  • Some blame part of the tardiness to DNA testing on a struggle between TBI and MPD in the mid- to-late 90s over which agency would build and operate a crime lab. Others point to Hyun Kim, a now-deceased MPD criminalist who managed kit storage and is said to have left virtually no records about what he did.
  • Skeptical professionals who worked alongside MPD saw bias in its selective testing. The cost – by 2013 it cost $225 per kit for serology testing and another $500 for DNA testing in private labs – factored into those criticisms. “I remember asking why the kits were being stored for so long,’’ former Rape Crisis Center therapist Ricci Hellman wrote in a 2014 letter to officials investigating the backlog. Though TBI never passed testing charges onto police agencies, she said she was told “most kits would never be analyzed because 1) it was expensive, and 2) the District Attorney wouldn’t really prosecute rape cases anyway.’’
  • City lawyers said many kits weren’t tested because suspects had already been identified, citing studies saying three-fourths of sexual assaults involve “acquaintance rapes’’ in which victims know their attacker. Yet, a nationally recognized sex crimes investigator said bias often plays a role in the decision of many police departments to prioritize stranger rapes over acquaintance rapes.

“So, the reason they’re focusing on stranger sexual assault is because it’s more sellable to the prosecutor, because it’s more sellable to the jury,” said Joanne Archambault, a retired San Diego police sergeant and executive director of  opens in a new windowEnd Violence Against Women International, a nonprofit agency that provides sexual assault investigation training and consultation.

Victim blaming and old concepts about how a woman should dress and how she’s allowed to socialize play roles in that, Archambault said.

“Where was she out? Who was she with? Well, that shouldn’t matter. But, unfortunately, it still does.”

This article first appeared at dailymemphian.com under an exclusive use agreement with The Institute. Photos reprinted with permission of The Daily Memphian.

Written By

Marc Perrusquia is the director of the Institute for Public Service Reporting at the University of Memphis, where graduate students learn investigative and explanatory journalism skills working alongside professionals. He has won numerous state and national awards for government watchdog, social justice and political reporting.

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