Early Results on DNA Evidence From Decades-Old Rape Cases Are Both Promising and Alarming

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Baltimore County police are starting to get back test results from a long-delayed project to process the oldest known collection of DNA evidence from rape cases.

Last year, ProPublica wrote about the trove of evidence and the prescient doctor who began assembling it in the 1970s, long before preserving forensic evidence was common police practice. Police have processed DNA from 49 of about 1,800 remaining cases as of the first quarter of this year, according to a department memo obtained through a public information request and follow-up communications with a sergeant in charge of the cold case unit. Ten of the 49 cases yielded actionable DNA profiles, according to the sergeant. The results, even from such a small batch, are at once promising and alarming:

  • The DNA profiles of unidentified suspects in three “stranger rape” cases have been uploaded into a federal DNA database. Sgt. Moe Greenberg wrote in an email that there are no results in those cases yet.
  • Police identified a suspect in a 1979 case. The prosecutor’s office initially decided not to move forward with charges, but Baltimore County Deputy State’s Attorney John Cox said his office is now reevaluating and looking at what options are available.
  • A suspect was identified in a 1978 case, but the answers came too late: The suspect died in October, and the victim died years ago.
  • Police connected a fourth victim to a serial rapist whose identity has eluded them since 1978; they have his DNA profile, but it doesn’t match anyone in the FBI database. That could mean the person was never arrested for a crime that would result in his DNA profile being uploaded into the database or that his profile remains in a backlog somewhere. According to the memo, police have sent the case to a private lab, Bode Technology, for forensic genealogy testing, which will try to identify a suspect by looking for possible relatives in publicly accessible DNA databases.

“It’s frightening but also heartening to think there are more serial rapists who may be caught with this testing,” said Wendell Carter, whose sister Alicia was killed in 1983 on the Goucher College campus by a serial predator who terrorized women across the Baltimore region between 1978 and 2000.

Police developed DNA profiles from testing 100 cases between 2005 and 2014, which eventually exposed Alicia’s killer, Alphonso W. Hill, as the worst known serial rapist in the state. Those cases placed him in the same spot on Goucher College campus where two other students were raped in the years before Alicia was killed. He has admitted to those rapes. He has since been linked to 25 rapes around the region, mostly thanks to forensic clues provided by this database. Hill confessed to killing Alicia last year after our investigation.

Though the evidence has delivered some promising results so far, ProPublica’s investigation exposed how much more must have been lost when some hospitals and police departments destroyed evidence and when police delayed testing.

Dr. Rudiger Breitenecker saved glass microscope slides and tubes containing samples from 2,252 sexual assault examinations conducted in his hospital between 1975 and 1997. He was the founder and director of the Rape Care Center at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center, and he started saving the samples years before rape kits were standardized and DNA testing technology was invented. His forensic pathologist background led him to believe it was better to save than to destroy, as others were doing at the time.

The doctor’s evidence collection went largely ignored until retired Sgt. Rose Brady heard about it in 2004 and began the first systematic effort to process and test Breitenecker’s savings. Investigators focused on stranger rape cases that had a high probability of being solved, and they ultimately arrested nearly 20 suspected serial rapists. The project stopped in 2014 due to lack of funds. Before Brady got involved, the hospital had destroyed some of the oldest slides in the collection in accordance with its retention policy. Today, about 1,800 cases’ worth of evidence remains untested.

Following scandals over police using questionable investigative practices and destroying evidence from sexual assault cases more recently, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced reforms and a new testing effort in 2019 thanks to a grant from the private Hackerman Foundation. Shelly Hettleman, a state senator from Baltimore County, requested funding from the foundation after sponsoring a law that mandated the testing of newer rape kits. The law does not cover the older evidence.

Hettleman said it is too soon to conclude much from the early results, but she expressed frustration that the testing has been so delayed. She and other officials say the pandemic and restricted lab capacities have slowed the new effort down. At the current rate, processing the rest of the evidence could take another half a century.

Advocates say such a delay is unacceptable, especially considering that many sex offenders assault more than one person. Recent research also documents how these predators can become one-man crime waves who also wind up charged with burglaries and murders. “How can we value women so little that we allow this to continue?” asked Jane Manning, a former prosecutor who now leads the Women’s Equal Justice Project, which helps survivors navigate the criminal justice system.

Special victims units typically work with relatively anemic resources given their daunting case loads. Baltimore County’s SVU team added 19 new cases in a recent stretch of 11 days.

Cold case squads frequently have even fewer resources. Police leadership had not devoted a single full-time detective to investigating the doctor’s evidence before the 2019 effort began, despite earlier pleas from the SVU team after they began to discover how many serial criminals were hidden in the untested slides. The dynamic is exacerbated when the media focus on newer cases, putting the pressure on officials with limited funds to deprioritize cold cases.

Now, Baltimore County’s SVU squad actually has a cold case group with one sergeant, two full-time detectives and three assistants. Despite this boost in resources, the workload is nevertheless tremendous considering the 1,800 cases from Breitenecker’s collection that are still waiting to be gone through, in addition to other cold cases. When investigating decades-old crimes, it’s often a challenge just to locate victims and witnesses. But the effort can be worth it.

Martha Southworth said it was very difficult not knowing who had attacked her at the edge of Goucher College campus in 1979. She thought her case would never be solved. But after police began testing the hospital slides in the mid-2000s, the slides from her case exposed Hill as a serial predator and provided a major clue that was vital to solving two other cases on the campus: Julie Wood’s rape in 1980 and Alicia Carter’s murder in 1983. Southworth said that going to court and seeing Hill sentenced to 30 years “was such a freeing experience for me. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore.”

That is one reason, Manning said, that it is so important to pursue these cold cases. The ex-prosecutor also said that those frustrated with investigations have other avenues they can use to pursue justice. They can reach out to elected officials to push for new city and state laws that would enable survivors to file lawsuits against law enforcement for failure to protect, as people can do in New York City. They can also reach out to the Department of Justice, which investigates police departments, and ask it to look into the way local law enforcement is handling sex crimes. The federal government investigated the Baltimore city police in 2016 and found indications of gender bias and a general failure to sufficiently process sexual assault evidence and pursue what looked to be suspected serial offenders. The city police have since undergone reform efforts. The Justice Department is also investigating the University of Maryland, Baltimore County for its response to sexual misconduct, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Most importantly, Manning said, survivors can organize politically around the issue to “let public officials know that there will be a price to pay if you continue to allow impunity for rape.”

Baltimore County police wrote in the memo that the pace of testing should pick up now that they have expanded staffing and added another private DNA lab to help process the evidence. Greenberg said in an email that in addition to this first batch of test results, 75 more slide cases have been outsourced for testing. Testing has been completed on 17 of those cases so far, and the results are still under review.

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