Mother and daughter, eager to report the crime in a timely manner that might lead to a conviction, went to the hospital so that medical workers could administer a rape kit, a police-approved means of collecting evidence in the aftermath of a violent sex crime.
Pickett’s rape kit remains lost after 36 years. Her assailant was never found. From her perspective, Picket was sexually assaulted, reported her crime, and the Robbins police did nothing.
Lost rape kits: A prevalent problem
This is not an isolated incident. A 2013 investigation launched by the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has uncovered that at least 203 rape kits have been collected in the tiny locale of Robbins since the mid-’70s, but were never used to properly investigate sexual assaults.
Because of a 2010 law passed in the state of Illinois requiring police to account for unprocessed rape kits, Cook County began the task of tracking down what happened to kits collected at hospitals, or that were sent in from police departments, but did not result in convictions or seemed otherwise unaccounted for.
In January 2013, the previous mayor of Robbins, Irene Brody, who just stepped down this year, invited these authorities to review how sexual assault evidence in her town was housed. According to the Sheriff’s Office, Robbins had an alarmingly high number of rape kits that were unaccounted for at 44. Additionally, no rape convictions related to these kits had come out of the town.
Among shelves filled with evidence gathered at the scenes of sexual assaults — shreds of torn clothing, stained paper bags, and vials of blood – 51 unsubmitted rape kits were discovered jammed onto a massive basement rack.
One hundred and fifty additional kits were unearthed that had been submitted to a central state agency for analysis and returned to local Robbins police, but then were never subsequently “worked” — meaning the police never followed up on the evidence in an attempt to identify suspects.
Addressing police failures
In February 2013, the Cook County Sheriff’s Office held a town hall meeting to invite Robbins residents to discuss this and other issues stemming from poor policing. Officers stood accused of not responding to emergency calls, and failing to solve robberies. Rape victims were also asked to come forward to be matched with the rape kits that had been discovered. Prosecutors were going to make an effort to reopen cases.
It was at this meeting that Rosa Pickett first stepped forward.
Now Pickett is working with the Sheriff’s Office to be the face of its efforts to work all the kits to potentially bring about convictions, or at least some measure of justice for sexual assault victims whose cases were forgotten.
In Pickett’s case, the negligence was so great that her rape kit is gone. After sorting through disorganized file cabinets and stacks of boxes, Cook County Sheriff’s Office officials were only able to find a single typed card documenting her rape 36 years ago. Perhaps the rape kit — probably contained in a small box that became stamped with labels and scrawled with handwritten numbers after phases of use — was confused with refuse in the rubble of the police storage area.
Yet, in addition to misplaced rape kits, unused kits lead to additional levels of injustice that can rarely be compensated for due to the passage of time.
Passage of time creates greater injustices
Had police used Pickett’s kit when it was collected, it may have helped them determine who raped and beat her in 1977. Even if Pickett’s kit had been found in 2013, the crime was so long ago, the DNA evidence it contained would not have been as effective as evidence 36 years later.
Many issues related to lost time — such as kit contents being completely used during a first analysis, with no opportunity to acquire new samples closer to events — make the negative effects of letting so much time pass even greater.
Today, vast databases containing DNA that has been collected from criminals now assist in processing rape kits, but these did not exist when Pickett was assaulted. For other victims, these databases offer hope.
In the case of another Robbins victim who has stepped forward, her rape kit has already identified a suspect through DNA evidence, decades after she was sexually assaulted.
Pickett is an older woman, who survived a drug addiction acquired after her assault to become a successful mother. This victim, a younger woman, prefers to remain anonymous.
The violent rape she endured at the age of 14 in 1991 still evokes sobbing when she tries to recount her story. Still, after courageously stepping forward, her kit was found and worked by Cook County Sheriff’s Office officials this year as part of the current audit. And the DNA from her kit matched a suspect in the system.
But, because her rape kit sat unworked on a basement shelf in Robbins for 22 years, her attacker might go unprosecuted. In this victim’s case, the statute of limitations has run out.
Challenges to justice are social, economic
The Sheriff’s Office is working with area prosecutors to change the laws in place so that the suspect, who has been named, can be charged. When the assault occurred, the statute of limitations was three years for rape, according to the Sheriff’s Office, meaning prosecutors only had that timeframe to attempt a conviction.
For Cara Smith, chief of policy and communications of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office, this is yet another hurdle she and her team are working to overcome in the county’s efforts to account for unutilized rape kits. “If your innocence is stolen, you need to know you will be protected,” Smith told theGrio.
According to Smith, had the 1991 crime occurred four miles north in the major city of Chicago, it would have been solved. Three years would have been enough time to catch and convict what was then a 14-year-old girl’s rapist. Chicago has a full-time police force, the resources to launch thorough investigations, and empowered advocates who support victims of sexual assault.
But, Robbins is a poor town. Blighted buildings dot its blocks. It is almost 100 percent black, and has less than 7,000 residents. For these reasons, authorities say it is easy to overlook.
Police officers in Robbins only work part-time, making eight dollars an hour. Because Robbins has an underfunded police department in an economically distressed community, these cases and hundreds of others have languished. Unapprehended criminals continue to threaten their community. The issues of gross negligence, and a lack of accountability have pervaded the town, some say.
In one example, two police officers who had been investigating the violent 1991 rape have since been convicted of other crimes, Smith stated. One was convicted of taking a bribe from a drug dealer. The scene of the 1991 attack was near the backyard of an officer who was a Robbins police detective at the time, but little was done to solve the rape.
These circumstances have led to mounting frustrations.
“People are angry. The town is angry,” Pickett told theGrio.
Moving towards justice in Robbins, Cook County
For now, Cook County has taken control of the rape kit audit, is providing officer training to Robbins, and will investigate all new sexual assault cases, in addition to identifying the victims each kit represents. These higher-level authorities are adamant in pursuing each case and encouraging victims to risk trusting law enforcement again.
TheGrio contacted the office of the newly-elected mayor of Robbins, Tyrone Ward, for comment on why these rape kits were not worked by police. TheGrio also requested comment from the newly-appointed police chief, Melvin Davis. Neither responded to these requests for comment by publication time.
After taking a message for the mayor and police chief, the mayor’s assistant, Lisa Brock, explained to theGrio that the new administration is not aware of the acts of the previous mayor, who first worked with investigators to reveal the unprocessed rape kits. The new administration is working with the Sheriff’s Office in every way possible, according to Brock, to assist investigators in bringing justice to the victims. This has included firing old officers and hiring new officers, she said.
“This is a terrible thing,” Brock told theGrio. “The new administration is doing everything it can to move the investigation forward.”
For Smith and her team, the best help they can receive is “absolute transparency and complete cooperation” as they continue their work in Robbins, she said, especially during the process of calling on victims to come forward individually. This will be essential to these cases, because only the sexual assault victims can confirm or deny any circumstances that police had originally alleged to explain a failure to investigate a case.
Smith also wants the authorities of Robbins to feel empowered to ask for help to prevent such egregious oversights from being repeated.
“How was this community allowed to suffer for so long?” Smith asked.
Pickett is considering bringing a civil suit against Robbins for allowing the crime perpetrated against her to be ignored. She hopes a suit will deter police from neglecting evidence contained in rape kits in future cases.
Addressing a national rape kit crisis
After procedures for working through the kits is perfected in Robbins, the Sheriff’s Office will use the same methods in other Cook County municipalities.
“The perfect storm that brought this issue to exist in Robbins exists in other communities in Cook County,” Smith said.
Simultaneously, looming questions about this issue as it exists across America remain. Robbins is only one town in a vast landscape in which rape kits frequently go untested and unused to investigate sexual assaults.
As many as 400,000 rape kits nationally, according to reports, have never been tested, or fully utilized.
Who will pay for the testing of these kits? Which agencies should be tasked with properly investigating these crimes, when local authorities have failed? Who should be held accountable for the gross incompetence evident in police forces nationwide that have allowed these kits to go unprocessed?
As more and more communities become distressed during these difficult economic times, just as in Robbins, “crimes that are challenging to investigate will go unworked,” Smith said.
She stressed that these circumstances are not localized to Robbins. This can and is happening everywhere factors collude to block rape victims from being treated fairly by authorities.
Moving towards justice nationally
While Smith is focusing on Robbins and Cook County now, she and the Sheriff’s Office have also held a preliminary discussion with the Department of Justice, in addition to working with law enforcement in other cities, to determine what happens in different municipalities after a kit is tested or administered, and how to improve outcomes.
“A tested kit, that’s not worked, is just a further injustice to the victim,” Smith said.
The situation in Robbins exists in Detriot, in Cleveland, and many towns. Anyplace that lacks the ability to do thorough policing for reasons ranging from the economic to the political is susceptible.
A police force is more likely to mishandle evidence because it is small, or under-financed; because the town it serves seems insignificant or marginal; because an area is ecomically disadvantaged; because you were raped and happened to submit your rape kit in a town such as Robbins, until the current rape kit audit began.
“The level of protection a person receives should not depend on where you live. Your opportunity for justice shouldn’t depend on where you live,” Smith said. “That is unfortunately what happened in these cases,” she continued, referring to the case of Pickett and the victim of the 1991 rape.
In their small corner of the world, Smith, with Pickett as an icon of their project, are working together to make things right for the sexual assault victims of Robbins still seeking protection under law.
“It’s a big job,” Smith said, “but we’ll get there.”