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A lab worker at an Ohio state crime lab. In Ohio, DNA testing of the 14,000-kit rape kit backlog has yielded over 4,700 CODIS hits, but not all of these "hits" have yet lead to cases being solved. (Photo: Courtesy of the Ohio Attorney General)

Rape kits get tested from years past, and some yield DNA profiles of known offenders, while others don’t lead anywhere. In Ohio, the rate of “hits” in CODIS—the national DNA database—is higher than just about any other state, and has now led to hundreds of indictments in the Cleveland area alone.

But a CODIS hit doesn’t mean detectives are immediately hot on the trail of a serial rapist. That’s just the beginning of a new investigation. And sometimes, the waiting just enters a new phase, according to some law enforcement agencies. The bottleneck in one Midwestern city shows how rape-kit testing is not a cure-all for a problem of justice deferred.

At the Akron Police Department there is a backlog of 400 to 500 CODIS hits produced by elimination of the backlog of rape kits. The hits are all potential breakthroughs in long-unsolved sexual assaults—but they don’t lead anywhere if the manpower isn’t there to do the follow-up work, said Lt. David Whiddon, supervisor in the APD’s Crimes Against Persons unit.   

The unit has a part-time officer getting the files together—but the investigative work on those hundreds of CODIS hits just isn’t moving forward, because they don’t have enough people to do the backup of work, Whiddon told Forensic Magazine

“We’ve sent all these kits in, we have investigative leads—we have hits now,” said Whiddon. “They’re just sitting here (…) I just don’t have the people. I know there’s more cases in there.”

OHIO: A 36 PERCENT HIT RATE

The rape kit backlog is a trove of untested forensic material that documents thousands of horrific sexual assaults. But not every kit provides enough DNA for a profile, and not every profile leads to a match against a known offender in federal and state databases. Generally, states have reported a CODIS “hit rate” of between 20 to 25 percent of the kits tested.

In Ohio, that rate is 36 percent—and it’s driven by the high “hit rates” in three of the state’s biggest cities.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine announced two weeks ago that they had cleared just about all of the 14,000 sexual assault kits that had been sitting on crime lab and police department evidence room shelves for years. The AG had hired 10 additional forensic scientists to test the older kits, authorities said.

“This initiative is helping to hold accountable sexual predators who may have thought they had long ago gotten away with their crimes,” said DeWine, in a statement.

The kits produced more than 4,700 CODIS hits—forensic samples that match either a known offender or a profile produced in another case, according to the state authorities.

But where these Ohio hits may lead is determined on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes, the kit was never tested because a serial rapist was caught and convicted in the first place. Other times, the suspect could remain unidentified, even with matches to other cases. The attacker could even be dead. A variety of other reasons could lead to an investigative dead end.

BIG CITIES, BIG NUMBERS

The Ohio backlog clearing did, however, already lead to 620 additional indictments in Cuyahoga County alone, according to the AG’s office. That figure includes Cleveland, the jurisdiction with the biggest backlogs in the state.

Cleveland had both the most kits, and the highest CODIS hit rate. The 4,418 kits produced 2,027 hits—a rate of about 46 percent.

The other major cities driving the higher rate were Akron, producing a 41-percent hit rate (594 hits in 1,432 kits); and Toledo, which produced a 35-percent hit rate (636 hits in 1,802 kits).

Together, those three cities accounted for more than two-thirds of all the CODIS hits from the state’s backlog.

The Toledo Police Department did not return messages, and the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office did not yet respond to questions from Forensic Magazine.

Whiddon said the hit rate may be higher in Akron because they have set up better sexual assault protocols and investigation methods. They may be getting a higher hit rate because they are doing a better forensic job than ever before, and collecting evidence they can potentially use.

If there are detectives available to follow up on the leads, the lieutenant quickly added.

The rest of Ohio’s 10 largest cities had CODIS hit rates greater than most of the rest of the country—but also had smaller backlogs in the first place.

For instance, Columbus (29 percent) and Cincinnati (40 percent) both produced about 130 CODIS hits. Canton (49 percent) produced 52 CODIS hits, while Parma (17 hits, 23 percent), Youngstown (34 hits, 36 percent) and Lorain (24 hits, 26 percent) reported smaller “backlogs.” (Dayton, the state’s sixth-biggest city, was not listed among the 294 law enforcement agencies tracked by the attorney general’s office.)

But it’s unclear what happens with those CODIS hits in each jurisdiction. Ohio is a “home rule” state, so the attorney general’s office said it does not keep overall track of the disposition of the cases.

The ultimate fate of working through the backlog often remains unclear. For instance, Forensic Magazine found in a survey of many major agencies earlier this year that sexual assault evidence produced a rate of about 1 CODIS hit for every 4 kits. But in some states it was much lower; South Dakota discovered about a 16 percent match rate with other genetic profiles.

But exactly why Ohio overall has a higher hit rate remains unclear.

MANDATES, BREAKTHROUGHS AND MANPOWER

In the Buckeye State, the undertaking of clearing the backlog started with a voluntary initiative in 2011 led by the AG’s office. But a state law passed in 2014 mandated the testing of all sexual assault evidence.

The AG’s office has also posted agents to assist investigations in Cleveland and Toledo.

When there is follow-through, it can make a difference.

In Akron, their latest breakthrough was an additional rape indictment against Nathan Ford this month, Whiddon said. Ford, a notorious convicted serial rapist, is already serving two centuries behind bars for a string of attacks in Cuyahoga County. Ford is not likely to ever see freedom again, according to Ohio sentencing laws.

But for every success story, there is another of missed opportunity, some say. Efrem Johnson was sentenced to life in prison for a 2010 aggravated murder in Akron. But while serving a life sentence, his DNA turned up in a backlogged rape kit from 2000. He was convicted of the rape last year, and sentenced to an additional 28 years in prison. The question remains: would catching Johnson earlier for the rape have prevented the murder?

Like in other places, the CODIS hits in Ohio don’t necessarily translate to automatic prosecutions. Whiddon said in the interview that CODIS hits are just the beginning of full-fledged investigations in which the trail may have gone cold over a number of years.

And the hits keep coming. Akron received another six last week, in addition to the hundreds they already have stockpiled.

“When we get a hit, that’s just what it is—a hit,” the lieutenant said. “We have to look into whether or not it’s a consensual partner, something that is going to open a case back up again, it’s information on a suspect that was already in the case.”

Whiddon said the APD needs more detectives to help mete out justice.

“We have some cases in there which I’m sure—it’s just the law of averages—out of 400 or 500 hits there’s got to be some that are worthy of prosecution,” added Whiddon. “We just don’t have the manpower to follow up on them right now.”

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