Durham gets $1 million to help cut sexual-assault kit backlog and prosecute cases

The Durham Police Department has received a $1 million grant to help track down and prosecute suspects in sexual assaults from as long as 30 years ago.

The three-year grant will help address what began as a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits.

The grant and additional resources should give people more confidence that their cases will be prosecuted, District Attorney Satana Deberry said.

“Sexual assault is a big deal,” she said. “It is under reported, and we think this backlog of test kits further erodes the confidence that people have in reporting sexual assaults.”

The grant will pay for a prosecutor, two investigators, and a bilingual victim/witness assistant, according to a report on the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant, which the City Council formally accepted Monday night.

“We want our entire community to know that bringing closure to unresolved sexual assault cases is a high priority for the Durham Police Department, which is the primary reason we pursued this grant opportunity,” Police Chief C.J. Davis said in a statement. “We want each survivor to know they have not been forgotten and we are here for them.”

Deberry and Davis are panelists on a Nov. 16 moderated talk on sexual assault. The 10 a.m. to noon event “Sister to Sister: A Talk on Sexual Assault” will be held at a county administrative building at 201 E. Main Street.

The grant, awarded through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance, will also support Durham Crisis Response Center’s role in the process. The nonprofit serves victims of sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking, includes helping the police figure out how to best reach out to and serve victims.

“They may be in a place in their life where they don’t want to talk about it anymore. They don’t want to think about it,” said Charlene Reiss, the coordinator of the center’s sexual assault response team. “ They might be living with someone who doesn’t know that that was part of their history. They may be living with someone who could be the perpetrator.”

Statewide recount of sexual assault kits

After a sexual assault is reported, a state program pays for a medical exam in which evidence such as fibers, hair, and body fluids are collected and stored in a kit. In some cases, the kits are sent for DNA testing and to compare the results to evidence collected in other cases.

In February 2018, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced that a mandated statewide count had found more than 15,000 untested kits, The News & Observer reported.

Durham police had 1,711 untested kits, the most of any agency in the state. The oldest dated back to 1988.

Durham police then-spokesman Wil Glenn told The News & Observer in March 2018 there are numerous instances in which kits aren’t tested. Those instances included situations in which the accused agrees that the sexual act took place but contends it was consensual.

Since Stein’s announcement last year, the state has launched a tracking system and received or set aside a total of $10 million to test kits.

In May, Stein said Durham was the No. 2 city in the state in addressing the backlog of getting kits tested.

A state official said 405 of Durham’s kits had been approved for testing and 270 kits are being tested, according to ABC11, The News & Observer’s newsgathering partner.

Two people have been charged since Durham began reviewing its backlogged kits, Deberry said.

Review team

The Durham Police Department has a Special Victims Unit, but it focuses on current and newly assigned cases. The grant team will focus on the backlogged kits, according to spokesperson Kammie Michael.

The Durham kits are being reviewed by a team that includes Police Department staff, Durham Crisis Response Center representatives, sexual assault nurse examiners and prosecutors and others from the DA’s Office, Reiss said.

The Police Department has pulled an investigator from another area and will add another investigator with the help of the grant, she said.

The grant will also help police hire a full-time victim assistant, who will also help pull files associated with each kit, which is often time consuming — especially with older cases, Reiss said.

Reiss said she hopes the added resources will bring some suspects to justice and give sexual assault survivors some closure.

“Hopefully, it will help them feel heard,” she said.

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