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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Now we go Behind Closed Doors, as we often do on Mondays. That's where we talk about issues people usually keep private, and today we're going to talk about something that too many women have kept private through the years, even though they probably shouldn't have.

This is where I say that this is likely to be a sensitive conversation, and it may not be appropriate for all listeners because our subject today is rape. It's a crime that can be devastating. It often comes with feelings of shame and depression. As a result, often, the crime is not reported. But even when it is reported, in many cases, crimes are never prosecuted.

That's exactly what Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy found when she found that more than 11,000 boxes of potential DNA evidence in rape cases were discovered sitting on the shelves in an annex to the Detroit Police Department.

The kits contained evidence from rape victims that had never been processed. That's why Kym Worthy is making it a priority to take on some of these cases in Detroit. She says finding justice for those victims is possible, and she joins us now to tell us how she's trying to go about it.

Prosecutor Kym Worthy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

KYM WORTHY: Oh, my pleasure. And those kits go back 20 years, some of them.

MARTIN: How did you discover this?

WORTHY: Well, it's a very long story, but basically, we discovered an error rate in our firearms cases in the Detroit Police Department's separate crime lab. And as a long series of results from that, we had to close it. I recommended to the then-mayor and then-police chief that they close it. As a result, the Michigan State Police took over the running of the crime lab. And as a part of that, they wanted to do an inventory of everything that was in the property room in DPD, Detroit Police Department.

None of us really knew - that had been around in criminal justice for a long time - about this annex where all of these rape kits were discovered.

MARTIN: Can I just ask what went through your mind when you discovered this? I mean, because for every one of those cases, there's a person, right, behind it. So...

WORTHY: Exactly, exactly. And that's what makes it so tragic, because there are 11,000-plus people - and I say people, mostly women, a few children in there, too - that had been victimized in the most personal of ways. And if they go to the police - because you pointed out in the opening to your piece that a lot of these victims don't go to the police, and that is so true. Most of them do not.

So they do report it, and they kind of buck the trend then. And then they go through a long process called a rape kit process, which takes anywhere from three-and-a-half hours plus, where basically, you know, semen and fluids and hairs are plucked from just about every orifice of a person's body.

And so that happens to you right after you have been raped, and so you expect that the police and law enforcement personnel are going to use that evidence that they obtained from that very long and intimate exam and help them find your perpetrator. And then to learn that, you know, years later - like I said, 20 years, in some cases - that this evidence was just sitting on a shelf. So you're victimized twice, really.

MARTIN: You know, you've been in the trenches for quite some time and, you know, first African-American in your office - first African-American woman. You certainly - your work has been noted around the country. Many people will - around the country who are not familiar with this particular aspect of your work will remember that you were the person who brought charges against then-mayor - Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, which is not an easy thing to do, given that he was such an important and influential figure, you know, in the city.

So you've been in the trenches for some time, and I just wondered: Did you ever suspect that something was wrong? I mean, had you not been - had the office never heard from rape victims to say, what's going on here?

WORTHY: Well, I had never heard such a story. Now, I suspect no. I became the prosecutor here. I was the first woman African-American prosecutor, not the head - elected prosecutor. Not the prosecutor in the office. But I had heard kind of some rumblings about the first year I was in this position. I had been an assistant for many years and on the bench before that. And there was an incident that one of my chief of trials to me I don't even know how many years ago - maybe five years ago - that he had been over in the sex crime department and saw what he thought was rape kits. And he took some pictures with his cell phone, and we received a lot of flack for that, surprisingly enough.

And so we had many conversations back and forth, and we were assured that that would never happen again, that these were cases that had already been adjudicated, blah, blah, blah.

And, when I was an assistant many years ago, in the late '80s, early '90s, there was a case or two here and there where the rape kit hadn't been submitted. But did I have any idea that this kind of a problem - no. I thought, in my individual cases, it may be for that particular one case that it wasn't submitted.

So this was a huge shock to me, and I had no idea, and I could not believe that people weren't immediately taking it seriously. And they did not, at first.

MARTIN: Yeah. I wanted to ask: How do you think it got to this point? I mean, is it a case - I mean, obviously, the economic troubles of a lot of our Midwestern cities, really, across the country now are well-known, but a lot of the, you know, Midwestern cities like Detroit were experiencing, you know, some of this distress before other people were.

I mean, how did it get to this point? Was it budget issues, or was it that people really didn't think it was that important?

WORTHY: Well, you know, that's what we really don't know at this point, and that's why we tried to get this grant that we did end up getting from the National Institute of Justice. But here, back up for a moment, I'm sure that you know - and maybe some of your listeners do not - that this is really a 50-state problem. This is not just a Detroit problem or a Michigan problem.

There was a story done by CBS News a couple of years ago and they actually found and did research that there were untested, un-submitted or backlog rape kits in 47 of the 50 states. And, but that's no solace to me that just because we aren't the only ones. I don't really know what happened, and I don't know, I suspect I know but again, I don't know for sure. But that's one of the reasons why we are doing this grant with the National Institute of Justice.

And one of the tenants of this grant - one of the reasons for it or the goal for it - is to develop best practices and protocols regarding sexual assault kits and the evidence that can be adopted by other jurisdictions also dealing with this issue. So we know it's a national problem but as far as I'm concerned, the buck stops here. I'm very happy to be involved in this work so hopefully if these issues are discovered in the past, they don't have to reinvent wheel like we're having to do. They will look at our protocol that we hope will be a national protocol and they will know what to do - one, two, three, four, five, six, seven on down - what to do to immediately take steps to eradicate the problem.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about the scope of the problem. I hear you saying that this is a nationwide issue. I think that that might be surprising to some people, simply because, you know, we've been inundated with the importance of DNA evidence...

WORTHY: Yes. Yes.

MARTIN: ...through the popular media, through some very high-profile cases of people who have been exonerated because of DNA tests, even tests that had been taken long ago. So I guess, and forgive me for, I don't mean to trivialize it in that sense...

WORTHY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...but I think that the public has been educated by how important DNA evidence is. Why do think that it has taken so long, not just in Detroit, but in other places to test as evidence?

WORTHY: Mm-hmm. Well, I think I think one of the reasons is really very basic, that people do not take sexual assault very seriously, quite frankly. I think that sexual assault is really the stepchild crime when it comes to folks signaling the light on this particular crime. People don't want to talk about it, you know, women don't report it, and so I know here in Michigan it's about a 20 percent - let me speak about Wayne County - it's a 20 percent arrest rate and those are only the ones that are arrested, so you have 80 percent plus of the rapes not even being reported. So if we have like we do about 3,600 rapes reported in my county, which is the largest county in Michigan, it's a microcosm - a very small amount of the rape that's actually occurring.

So I think if people were very honest and I think I really believe this to be true, having been in criminal justice for almost 25 years now, that people don't take this crime seriously so they take the evidence seriously. And I think we'll find, when we finish our work on this grant, that a lot - I'm not indicting law enforcement but a lot - of law enforcement doesn't take this crime seriously, and a lot of them engage in a tactic to try to get women not to report it as well - so, especially if the woman is a prostitute or has issues with drugs. So it's just not a very seriously taken crime, quite frankly, and I think that adds to the reason.

But also there really is no tracking system. So let's say you're a victim that's raped in Michigan or anywhere else and you go through the rape kit process, there's really no way for you to check as a victim as to where your kit is in the process. So one of our goals is also you can log on and you can track FedEx packages, you should be able to track where your rape kit is and be able to tell if it's tested or not. So there are a number of issues and this is bringing forth the number of issues but I think really, the bottom line is it's - and I hate to say this but I think it's true - it's an assault against women, even women sometimes don't take it seriously when we look at women jurors and things, and so I think that's really the base problem that we have.

MARTIN: Can I ask you more about that, though?

WORTHY: Yes.

MARTIN: Why do you think that is that people don't take sexual assault seriously? I mean it just seems though that, you know...

WORTHY: Well, you know - yeah.

MARTIN: ...all these years, you know, I mean obviously, you know, rape is in the Bible.

WORTHY: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean it's so much a part of our, you know, culture that people understand, you know, what it is. And I just, I don't know, just what are your thoughts about this?

WORTHY: Well, you know, if you look at child abuse...

MARTIN: Yeah.

WORTHY: ...years ago, you know, really there was no really light shone on that for a very long time and now everybody knows and people are educated. And then, you know, then a few years back it was domestic violence, when people didn't take domestic violence seriously. They thought it was OK for a husband to beat their wife or a man to beat his girlfriend or something like that. And now, since there's been so much attention focused on it, people take it seriously. Well, now I think it's time for sexual, I think.

So, if you look at a lot of the crimes that we have today, a lot of the crimes that we have today, family violence and other issues just weren't taken seriously until there was some crisis that led to the attention being focused on. And I think much is the same way. As to why, I don't know. I know that that's part of our research because the other goal of our grant that we are working on with the MIJ, which is a $2 billion grant that we began work on last April of 2011, is to really - and this is very important - to improve the criminal justice system's response to sexual assault from the initial point of contact through prosecution. So really, the time has come for us to take a serious look at sexual assault and all the issues that flow from women being sexually assaulted. So I think that kind of answers your question. Hopefully at the end of this grant we'll be able to have a better answer for you.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with Wayne County prosecutor Kym Worthy. She's making it a priority of hers to go through more than 11,000 rape kits that have been sitting in a Detroit police department annex for years now and we're talking about why that happened and what she's trying to do about it.

Prosecutor Worthy, I know that, you know, there's really no delicate way to ask this question but it has been reported that you have a personal experience with this when you were a first year law student.

WORTHY: Yes.

MARTIN: And, you know, I know that you want to put the focus on your professionalism and how you're addressing this. But I do have to ask, you know, how - you didn't report this yourself.

WORTHY: That's right. And that's right. And I thought at the time - you know, I'm certainly more evolved woman, you know, what, 25 years later. But, you know, I think a lot of women, again, they think somehow innately that it won't be taken seriously. Or, more important, my experience was - and I was a law student. I was a first-year law student.

So I was, I think, fairly sophisticated, but very unsophisticated when it came to sexual assault and how the response was, because I automatically thought that this was going to turn my world upside down. I would never be able to get back to normal, that I would never be me again, that I wouldn't be able to finish law school, that my entire life and my family's lives and that of everybody that I cared about would be disrupted. And I was the victim, and I felt that way.

So I really felt at the time that if I were to go forward with what I thought was a - and, you know, in some sense, it was true and still is true - would be just an attack on me and would completely derail my plans of finishing law school, then that's what was kind of omnipresent present in my mind. And maybe if I had been better educated and if I had known that there were prosecutor's offices, even back then, that were sensitive to me, or if I had worked with the police - I didn't even give the police a chance to work on my case.

MARTIN: You didn't even go to the - and this wasn't - just to clarify...

WORTHY: No I did not.

MARTIN: ...this was not a date rape situation. This isn't somebody you knew...

WORTHY: No. No. No.

MARTIN: ...where you thought the circumstances might be ambiguous and people would assail your character.

WORTHY: Right.

MARTIN: You were jogging.

WORTHY: Yes, I was jogging.

MARTIN: And you were assaulted while you were jogging, right?

WORTHY: That's right. That's right. And, you know, and so I really believed that I would somehow lose myself in the whole process. That's what I really believed at the time. And so I chose to ignore it. I chose to - ignore is probably a bad word - I chose not to go to the police. I went to the doctor. I went to the doctor that was my doctor at the time. I told my family members, they came up to the law school. The law school was very supportive. And so to me, all the people that were important to me at the time to help me get through law school, were there and supportive of me.

MARTIN: But nobody encouraged you to go to the authorities?

WORTHY: You know, they really didn't. They really didn't.

MARTIN: What do you think that says? Do you think that maybe they bought into the idea that nobody would take it seriously? I mean...

WORTHY: No. And like I said, I don't want to make this about me, but I think, basically, I have a very strong personality and once I announced that I was going to - I was not going to pursue it, there wasn't anyone that really tried to talk me out of it. That's really a more accurate depiction of how it came about.

MARTIN: What made it OK to talk about it, finally? When did you finally decide that it was OK to talk about it?

WORTHY: It was...

MARTIN: What made you decide to disclose this?

WORTHY: It was never anything I didn't talk about. I mean it wasn't a secret. I've been asked this many times in the past 25 years, but probably because it a relevant question and it's an understandable question based on the kind of work that we're doing is probably why more people are asking now.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. How do you feel now - it's 25 years now. I mean you look so young. It's hard to envision that but...

WORTHY: Oh, well, thank you for that.

MARTIN: But..

WORTHY: About this?

MARTIN: Yeah. How do you feel now talking about it? I mean...

WORTHY: I feel like I feel about any of my other past experiences, frankly. I've lost a child. I lost my mother when I was young. I lost a child when I was in my mid-30s and like anything else, it's a part of your life. It's a part of, it's a large chapter of your life that makes up all the parts of who you are. So I just look at it as it's something that happened to me and it's made me who I am now.

MARTIN: Do you feel...

WORTHY: That's how I look at it.

MARTIN: Yeah. I hear you. Do you feel that we will ever get to a point where we won't be talking about it in this way - that you won't have to tell people why it's important to report? That you won't have to educate people in law enforcement about why it's important to take it seriously? Do you envision that?

WORTHY: What an interesting question. And I guess I have to answer it this way is I could not do this work every day. And it's not just, you know, for sexual assault kits and the rape cases, we have to deal with or homicides that we see, we're having big issues in Detroit with that now and children being shot and child abuse and elder abuse. I wouldn't be able to deal with this on a daily basis if I did not believe that it would be better and that the work we're doing will lead to less victimization in the future. So I strongly believe in the grants that we've received, the first from the Office on Violence Against Women, where we did the initial random sampling of these kits, to the work that we're currently doing with the National Institute of Justice, with a fairly large grant that we're working with now.

I firmly believe in the people that we have, the collaboration that we have on this project - from Michigan State University to the Michigan Domestic Violence and Sexual Prevention Board, to the Wayne County Forensic Nurses, to Mariska Hargitay, star of "Law & Order SVU," we're working with her - foundation called The Joyful Heart Foundation, we're working with her on that, to the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan, the Detroit Police Department. All of the relevant people that we have involved here I think are committed to the two goals that we've talked about: to make sure that these problems are eradicated in the future, that we know what to do if it does happen, and that we really improved the response of sexual assault in the future. We have a unique group of people that were working with.

If I didn't believe that as the result of this work that things were going to get better, that we - it would really be hard for me to function in this job. You know, we have other things we want to do, too. Like I said, we want to be able to track this. We want to be able to hold - in the future, a dream of mine would be able to hold police departments in the future across the country accountable if they have rape kits that they're just letting build up and up and up - that somehow, you know. I'll sound radical here, but that their federal funding would somehow be jeopardized if they received federal funding if they knowingly allowed these rape kits to back up. So really, what we want is accountability, what I want personally is accountability to our victims, to our rape victims. Why should we be more accountable to our child abuse victims or our homicide victim's families than we are to people who are raped in the most intimate of ways? And so yes, I believe it is going to get better, just as, you know, domestic violence awareness and child abuse awareness has in the past.

MARTIN: Kym Worthy is Wayne County prosecutor. She was kind enough to join us from member station WDET in Detroit, Michigan.

Prosecutor Worthy, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WORTHY: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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