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DNA Activism

Mon, 06/18/2012 - 3:15pm
Chris Asplen

A dynamic fairly unique to the U.S. system of justice is the extensive impact that victim advocacy has on policy, legislation, and funding. Having lived and worked abroad for more than a few years, I’ve been struck by the extent to which victim’s voices elsewhere fail to resonate with decision makers the way they do in the United States. It’s not that victim advocacy is nonexistent in other parts of the world but the impact victims have in the U.S. for the cause of justice can be extraordinary.

Natasha Alexanko is one of those voices fighting for justice. While the community of DNA activists is already well represented by tireless advocates like Debbie Smith who has battled for years to ensure sufficient DNA funding and Jayann Sepich who criss-crosses the country to promote arrestee testing, Natasha has made the commitment to dedicate her time, effort, and her story specifically to the elimination of backlogged rape kits. A victim whose rape kit sat untested for nine years, Natasha has started Natasha’s Justice Project, dedicated to eliminating the estimated 200,000 kit backlog of rape kits through education, advocacy, and public awareness.

Natasha’s story is so relevant and representative of the injustice of untested rape kits that it was used recently to punctuate an HBO film produced on the work of the Manhattan DA’s Office’s Sex Crime Unit. Simply titled, Sex Crimes Unit, the film documents the daily work of prosecutors and investigators navigating the very realistic waters of bringing a massive number of rapists to justice. Natasha’s story is threaded throughout the film, highlighting a particularly difficult aspect of sex crime investigation and prosecution—the cold case. A stranger rape, with little evidence other than DNA, but DNA evidence rendered useless by the failure to have it submitted, analyzed, and entered into CODIS.

What her story highlights, and what she now brings to the advocacy community, is the story behind the headlines or the CODIS statistics. It is the value in all victim advocacy. It is the meaning of solving a case to a victim’s sense of self, of safety, relief of guilt that they could have, should have done something differently. It is the opportunity to have what Natasha called that “transcendent” moment of clarity, and most of all power, from the witness stand. Clarity and power that is denied as long as a case remains unsolved.

In 1993, Natasha was a twenty-year old college student living in New York City, a dream she had maintained her entire life. She was violently raped, sodomized, and robbed at gunpoint by an unknown assailant while walking back to her apartment. Natasha resisted the temptation to shower the evidence away from her violated body and went to the hospital where hospital staff collected evidence for her rape kit. Following her assault, all leads were exhausted by the New York City Police Department and her attacker could not be identified. Natasha’s rape kit sat on a shelf at the New York City Police Department property clerk’s office for the next nine years.

To be clear, Natasha’s case was not the result of a systemic failure to act by police, prosecutors, or the laboratory. (If you read this commentary even occasionally, you know I have no problem pointing out such failure where I think it exists!) These were still the early days of DNA databasing. The New York City Medical Examiner’s Office was not even a part of CODIS yet. Not submitting a rape kit for DNA analysis was an understandable, albeit frustrating, decision for police at that time. If no suspect existed, funds spent on DNA analysis could fairly be considered wasted if no suspect was ever developed through other, more traditional evidence. But again, this was pre-CODIS.

Then, in 2003, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg announced the “John Doe Indictment Project,” a coordinated city-wide initiative designed to prevent rapists from using the statute of limitations to escape prosecution. Of 17,000 untested rape kits, it was estimated that an excess of 600 cases related to those kits were soon to expire, including Natasha’s case. As a result, nearly a decade after her attack, Natasha received a call from the New York City District Attorney’s Office as prosecutors looked to use the DNA from her rape kit to create a “John Doe” indictment. That same year, summoning more than just a little courage, she testified before a grand jury and the DNA profile from her rape kit was indicted, allowing prosecutors to bring charges against her attacker whenever captured.

In 2007, the New York City Police Department found Natasha’s attacker through a match to his DNA profile in CODIS. Victor Rondon had been arrested in Las Vegas, Nevada, on a minor charge. When extradited to New York, his DNA profile was entered into CODIS pursuant to a parole violation. Rondon’s profile matched the DNA profile developed from Natasha’s rape kit. A year later, Rondon was tried before a jury and found guilty of eight counts of violent assault, including burglary in the first degree, robbery in the first degree, two counts of rape in the first degree, sodomy in the first degree, and sexual abuse in the first degree. Rondon was sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison.

That’s not to say her trial was anything less than traumatic. The first question on cross-examination was, “Were you a virgin?” Seriously. In today’s world, with a Rape Shield law firmly in place in New York, that was the first question out of the defense attorney’s mouth. (A woman described by the prosecutor as an experienced defense attorney with a clear knowledge of the objectionable nature of the question.) The cross-examination didn’t get better from there. The defense proffered by the defendant was based on the theory that, since Natasha didn’t scream while she was shoved up the stairs of her apartment building into the bike storage area, thrust over a railing, and repeatedly raped and sodomized WITH A GUN TO HER HEAD, well then clearly she must have enjoyed the experience and that constituted evidence of consent.

Getting back to the film. There was another poignant observation to be made about the film. As Natasha’s story unfolds and it becomes clear that it was nine and a half years that her rape kit sat untested, the director uses flashes of newspaper articles with headlines about sex crimes and rape kits and backlogs. But while the headline was clearly visible, you could also see a bit of the text from the article. And in those flashes of text you could see a name recurring time and time again—Debbie Smith. Debbie Smith for whom the Debbie Smith Act is named and who is responsible for literally hundreds of thousands of dollars allocated to various aspects of DNA testing. Coming full circle, the film reminds us, although I think unintentionally, that it was victim advocacy that first forced decision makers to pay attention to the issue of backlogged rape kits and the tragedy of solvable yet unsolved cases. It was Debbie’s victim advocacy that drove the decision makers to test Natasha’s kit in the first place.

Natasha was raped when there were legitimate reasons that made the decision not to test a rape kit rational. Lack of a fully implemented CODIS system made those decisions understandable. In 2012 however, there are no understandable or rational reasons why 200,000 kits remain untested. There is no cost benefit analysis that comes out on the side of refusing to submit a case to the laboratory. Fortunately, there is now yet another loud and convincing voice willing to share her story and testify to the unacceptable fact of backlogged rape kits.

Thank you, Natasha.

Chris Asplen is President of Asplen and Associates, LLC. He consults with local, state, federal, and international governments on the use of forensic DNA technology. He can be reached at ChrisAsplen@Gmail.com.

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