It’s often said that justice delayed is justice denied. This is especially true for victims in sexual-assault cases that were never prosecuted or even fully investigated.
Numerous reports from across the country indicate that many thousands of unprocessed “rape kits,” which are used to collect and store DNA evidence in sexual assault cases, have been sitting on shelves for years and sometimes decades. They have lingered there for a variety of reasons, including charges never being brought, the expense of testing the evidence, the limits of DNA technology when the samples were gathered and, most inexcusable, simple bureaucratic neglect.
That used to be true in our state, as well. But in 2011, the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Kit Commission recommended that all old evidence collection kits be tested, and law-enforcement agencies were encouraged to send their unprocessed kits to the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation to be analyzed at no charge.
The results have been stunning.
As of July 1, 8,001 kits had been submitted from around the state, and 4,108 have been tested so far. This has resulted in 1,474 matches with records in the national DNA database, or a hit in 35 percent of kits tested.
By far, the largest number of evidence kits have come from the Cleveland Police Department, which has submitted almost 4,000. Our offices formed a DNA Cold Case Task Force with the Cleveland police and the Cuyahoga County Sheriff’s Office to investigate and prosecute cases as this evidence is tested.
So far, more than 135 people have been indicted, including 37 “John Does.” While the identities of these men are not known, they were indicted to ensure that Ohio’s 20-year statute of limitations for rape does not expire before they can be brought to justice. One “John Doe” has been linked to four 1993 rapes. Unfortunately, that is not surprising: A third of the defendants indicted have been linked to more than one rape. Rapists often have high rates of recidivism, and the rap sheets of many perpetrators list other crimes, such as burglary, robbery, domestic violence and even homicide.
Take, for example, Elias Acevedo Sr., who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison in December for multiple rapes and two murders committed in the 1990s. The investigation into Acevedo’s involvement in those homicides was spurred, in part, by the discovery of his DNA in a 1993 rape kit submitted for testing by the Cleveland police. Acevedo led us to the body of one murder victim that he had hidden in a sewer vault, where the body remained for almost 19 years.
As a result of the DNA initiative, serial rapist Delbert Buckwald was convicted last year of raping two women who suffered from mental illnesses and a 12-year-old girl he accosted while she was walking to school. The rapes occurred between July 1993 and February 1994. After he completes his current rape sentence in 2017, Buckwald will face a minimum of 30 years of additional prison time.
Kenneth Parker was already serving 18 years in prison for two 1996 Columbus-area rapes. Through the testing initiative, Parker was indicted for two additional rapes carried out within two months of each other in 1993 in the same abandoned Cleveland apartment building. Now, instead of posing a potential danger to more women upon release, he will begin serving a sentence of between 16 years and 50 years once his current term expires next year.
Such efforts certainly are about protecting the public. By identifying and stopping active career criminals, we can prevent new victims from being raped, robbed or killed. But we also owe justice to the forgotten victims — justice that has been delayed for far too long.
We urge every state to undertake similar efforts; many states, to be candid, still have not faced up to their own backlogs of untested rape evidence. In addition, Congress should continue to help states and local governments with the critically important work of DNA testing. By doing so, we can save lives and make our communities safer.