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The life cycle of a sexual assault evidence kit

It starts when the emergency room door opens.

A victim walks in. She may have been sexually assaulted an hour ago or a day ago, but now, she’s decided to see a doctor. She might walk in with a friend or a parent, or she might sit alone and wait for the sexual assault nurse examiner to arrive.

“I just introduce myself at the beginning,” says Molly Chadbourne, a former sexual assault nurse examiner in Durham who currently trains other nurses. “I explain who I am and why I’m there to talk with them. Then, I ask them what they want. Do they want a kit?”

This is where a sexual assault kit begins. Its life cycle may last months, or even years.

The nurse ushers the victim into a small hospital room where they have privacy. Chadbourne likes to start with the easier questions: “What’s your medical history? What types of medicine do you take?” Then, she’ll ask the harder question. “Can you tell me what happened to you?”

The nurse listens, letting the victim take breaks and reminding her that it’s okay to tell her story imperfectly.

“We know that some people aren’t going to remember everything right away, and they might not remember it linearly,” Chadbourne says. “We have to give people permission to start talking about whatever they can, even if it’s not at the beginning.”

Then, the nurse starts to assemble the kit, a small white cardboard box with “Sexual Assault Evidence Collection Kit” printed on the front. 

The nurse starts collecting “known” samples, or the victim’s DNA. She’ll gently swab around the victim’s cheeks, gums, and lips. She’ll ask the victim to take off her underwear and seal it in a bag labeled “Underpants”. She’ll pluck exactly 50 hairs out of the victim’s head and then comb through her pubic hair, securing any hairs that fall off into a small envelope. 

Then the nurse collects “unknown” samples, which could include the assailant’s DNA. The nurse will swab any place on the body where the victim says she was assaulted. “It’s anywhere that was licked, bit, or touched by the assailant,” Chadbourne says.

She says “anything that’s on their body might be relevant”. Victims and nurses alike understand that the victim’s body is a crime scene.

The nurse takes photos of the woman, documenting any cuts, scrapes, or bruises. “I offer to let people look at the pictures,” Chadbourne says. “I try to give them as much control over the process as possible.” At any point, she notes, a victim can stop the kit collection.

After two hours, the nurse has packed away dozens of cotton swabs, photographs of injuries, and envelopes of hair into the sexual assault kit. She closes the lid of the white cardboard box and places it in storage, where the kit waits for law enforcement to come pick it up the next morning.

***

When the kit arrives at the police department, an officer will take a first look. That officer might notice if the kit is connected to a consent case, a case in which the victim and the perpetrator both agree that they had sex, but disagree on whether it was consensual. Three years ago, a consent kit would get put back on the evidence shelves at the police department instead of getting tested. It could stay there for over 30 years.

“When I was seeing patients, I couldn’t say to them, ‘Your kit will never get tested, because you know the person that assaulted you,’” Chadbourne says. “Doing this really invasive process and knowing in the back of your mind that this kit will probably never be tested… it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”

But today, with the statewide push to send all kits to the State Crime Lab, that kit won’t sit on an evidence shelf if it doesn’t meet testing requirements. Instead, an officer will log it into the North Carolina State Crime Lab’s database. A technician at the lab will accept the kit, and the officer will drive it to Raleigh, where the State Crime Lab is located.

“We place the kit into a vault until it’s time to be worked,” says Jody West, forensic sciences manager at the State Crime Lab. “Then we open it up, and start with inventory.”

Every sexual assault kit is a little different “It’s a box, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all box,” according to Chadbourne and the State Crime Lab takes note of every swab, photo, and hair inside.

A lab technician first takes a tiny portion of the swab and uses a chemical to tease out the DNA from its cotton. “It’s like cracking open an egg and removing the yolk,” West explains.

Lab technicians then use a machine to separate the yolk — human DNA — from any other type of genetic material. In sexual assault cases, they’re usually looking for male DNA. “This is the decision point,” West says. “If we determine there’s not enough male DNA, we’ll stop.”

If the kit moves ahead, it goes through amplification, or copying the yolk. The assailant’s DNA fragments are heated and cycled through a hefty gray machine — in just thirty cycles, a billion copies of that DNA are made.

The last step is electrophoresis, or separating the yolk. Analysts use an electric field to detach different fragments of DNA. The result is a complete DNA profile. “It looks a lot like a heartbeat,” West says.

After hours in the emergency room, days with law enforcement and up to five weeks at the lab, this is what a completed sexual assault kit looks like: A series of peaks on a computer screen.

Those peaks the DNA profile of the assailant will be entered into a database of millions of offenders across the country. A computer will scan each offender’s profile, checking for a perfect match. If the all of the peaks line up, the computer spits out a name. Then, it’s up to the police to investigate the sexual assault.

That is the life cycle of one sexual assault kit. To clear the backlog of 15,160, North Carolina has thousands more to go.

“Most people, if they’ve ever heard of a rape kit before, it’s from watching Law and Order SVU,” Chadbourne says. “They think it gets solved in 60 minutes. The truth is, it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.”

A sexual assault evidence kit. Photo provided by Molly Chadbourne

Resources for survivors:

Durham Crisis Response Center

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network: What is a sexual assault forensic exam?

North Carolina Sexual Assault Kit Tracking 

North Carolina Office for Victims of Crime: Crime compensation

Police make three arrests after testing old sexual assault kits

In 2017, Michael Brooks Jr. was arrested for kidnapping, assaulting, and raping an elderly woman. Now, after testing evidence from a sexual assault kit that went untested for three years, police say they believe Brooks committed another rape a year earlier.

Brooks, 45, is one of three men Durham police suspect of committing multiple rapes after evidence in old sexual assault kits revealed DNA matches in separate crimes.

After discovering a backlog of over 1,700 untested sexual assault kits in 2018, the Durham Police Department has begun to pull those kits off the shelves and test their contents. Now, just over one year into the process, police have made their first three arrests connected to the testing of old kits.

***

In March 2018, the North Carolina State Crime Lab announced that law enforcement agencies had 15,160 untested sexual assault kits across the state. That discovery prompted movement in the capital and among individual law enforcement agencies. After decades of stasis, police and sheriffs’ offices began sending in their untested sexual assault kits.

So far, North Carolina law enforcement offices have submitted over 8,000 kits to the State Crime Lab for testing. Cities from Winston-Salem to Charlotte have reopened cold-case sexual assaults and charged suspects.

The Durham Police Department — the jurisdiction with the largest backlog in the state in 2018 — is joining those cities by charging three suspects identified through the testing of old kits.

Brooks was served an arrest warrant for a 2016 rape while in jail, where he waits to stand trial for rape and assault charges from 2017. Police also arrested Isiah Anthony Townes Jr., 22, and indicted Ronnie Porter, 45, for rapes committed in 2016 and 2014, respectively. 

“We’ve had some good success stories,” said Lieutenant Stephen Vaughan, assistant commander of the Criminal Investigations Division. “We’re looking at sending every kit we can.”

Vaughan estimates that the Durham police have sent in around 400 kits for testing so far. But the process is complicated by the different statuses of kits in the police inventory. 192 of Durham’s 1,711 kits are related to cases that have already been resolved in court, and 166 are marked as “unfounded.”

Kits marked as “unfounded” means that the officers who originally investigated the case believed that no crime occurred. But Vaughan and his team are still reviewing those cases to make sure the original designation was correct. “If there are any questions, we’re going to reopen that case and send the kit as well,” he said.

Police are even looking through cases that have already been resolved in court. In some cases, defendants who faced multiple charges accepted a plea deal that did not involve any sexual assault charges. Now, they could be held accountable for those crimes, too. 

***

Sending kits for testing at the State Crime Lab is just the beginning of the process for clearing the backlog at the Durham Police Department.

Take Brooks’ case. The State Crime Lab checked DNA evidence from the sexual assault kit with a federal database that contains DNA profiles from convicted offenders across the country. That’s when they found a match: the unknown DNA profile from the kit matched Brooks. 

After that, the Durham Police Department reopened the cold case and got to work. But they haven’t been working alone.

Durham’s Sexual Assault Response Team also includes the Durham Crisis Response Center, the District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit, and the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner program at Duke Hospital. 

“When the Police Department started getting to the point where information from the Crime Lab was coming back, they realized they needed to have a plan for how to contact the victims,” said Charlene Reiss, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Response Team at the Durham Crisis Response Center. Her team helps police form relationships with victims who may experience trauma from reliving a sexual assault.

“We sit in a room and go through these cases as a group,” Reiss explained. “We really try to figure out how to keep the victim’s needs at the forefront as the Police Department figures out how to move forward.”

***

The Police Department still has hundreds of kits to prepare for testing, including some that date back over thirty years. But the Sexual Assault Response Team is determined to clear the backlog.

“These are the cases that most need to be prosecuted,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, lead prosecutor in the Special Victims Unit. “We’re getting CODIS hits on serial rapists.”

Even so, she knows that the process is only just beginning. “I think the goal for this is roughly six years,” she said. “And that’s only to test them all. If the last cold case kit gets tested 5 years from now, it’ll be 7 years from now before it goes to trial.”

Brooks’ case will also likely take years to reach its conclusion. This week, the District Attorney’s office will meet with Brooks’ victims to attempt to work out a plea deal for both the 2016 and 2017 rape cases. Brooks is currently in jail on a $1,750,000 bond. His lawyer estimates that both cases will come to trial in the summer of 2020.

In Courtroom 7D: Tears, dramatic videos and questions about a homicide investigation

Correction: This story has been updated. An earlier version incorrectly said that Bishop said in his 911 call that he found his father on the floor.

This story was reported and written by Niharika Vattikonda and Erin Williams

Alexander Bishop wept as the video played on the big screen in Courtroom 7D. It showed police arriving at his Durham home and working feverishly to save the life of William Bishop, his father.

The dramatic video, recorded by body cameras worn by Durham police officers, was the focus of a hearing Wednesday morning. It showed William Bishop unconscious on the floor as police officers urgently gave him CPR.

As the video played in court, Alexander Bishop removed his glasses and buried his face in his hands, sobbing.

Allyn Sharp — an attorney for Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father — questioned officers about whether they had followed proper procedures. Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. held the hearing to consider Sharp’s motions that contend Bishop was the victim of shoddy police work.

One of the motions asked the court to sanction prosecutors for failing to provide Bishop’s attorneys with all the search warrants and evidence related to the case. Another asked that investigators return Bishop’s and his mother’s electronic devices that were seized during a search.

The other two motions sought to dismiss evidence found as a result of search warrants and statements Bishop made when he was first questioned. 

Alexander Bishop at a hearing on Sept. 11, 2019 | Photo by Cameron Beach, The 9th Street Journal

Those statements were the focus of much of the testimony Wednesday. Sharp questioned whether the statements Bishop made at the scene were lawfully obtained. But at the end of the day, Hudson denied her motion to suppress the evidence from that questioning. The hearing will continue Thursday on the other motions.

Wednesday’s testimony from police provided new details about the investigation and the early suspicions that officers had when they arrived at the Bishop home on April 18, 2018. 

When Officer Austin Farley asked Bishop about his relationship with his father, Bishop described him as emotionally abusive. “He went on to state that he wasn’t too concerned if his father didn’t come back,” Farley testified. “He also stated that he would be afraid of what his father did if he did survive.” 

Officer Samuel Kimball overheard Bishop’s remarks to first responders, and he testified that he was struck by the way Bishop talked about his father. 

“I noticed that he was consistently referring to his father in the past tense,” Kimball said. 

At that point, William Bishop still had a pulse and would not be pronounced dead until three days later in a hospital. 

“Usually grieving relatives or someone in this situation is still referring to their family member in the present tense,” said Kimball.

In her motion, Sharp argued that police officers unlawfully interrogated the teenager in the house without advising him of his Miranda rights. Officer Matthew Garvin testified that they were simply securing the scene. 

Sharp responded that for the purpose of Miranda rights, the only standard that applies is whether a reasonable person — in this case, a reasonable 16-year-old — would think that they were being held in custody. If that was the case for Bishop, then questioning him without an attorney or a parent present violated due process.

As a part of her cross-examination, Sharp played another clip from a body-cam video from one of the officers. “Keep an eye on the son. Make sure he doesn’t go anywhere,” Kimball says on the recording.

But the officers also testified that they were not ready to read him his Miranda rights.

“Did you at any point advise Alexander of his rights?” Sharp asked Officer Matthew Garvin, another police officer who responded to the call.

“I did not,” Garvin said. Two other officers on the stand also testified that Bishop was not read his Miranda rights.

However, Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, argued that the “free to leave standard” — interpreted as whether the defendant thinks they’re in custody — does not apply under North Carolina law, which demands a “totality of the circumstances” analysis. 

She said Bishop was allowed freedom of movement, the officers themselves did not make explicit statements that he was in custody, and no restraint or intimidation was used to keep the defendant in the house. 

In his 911 call, Alexander Bishop said repeatedly that he thought his father was dead and suggested twice that the family’s dog may have strangled him by twisting a leash around his father’s neck. Police began to focus on Bishop as a suspect, and a grand jury indicted him in February. 

In July, Bishop’s attorneys filed motions to throw out most of the evidence, including statements made by the defendant. The motions also claimed that the lead homicide investigator omitted key facts to obtain search warrants.

At the hearing, officers testified about their growing suspicions while they were at the Bishop home.

After Kimball turned off his body cam, he met with other officers to discuss what they had found. He sent one of them to find Bishop, “just to monitor his movements out of caution,” Kimball said.

Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, asked Kimball what he thought at that point.

“I said that either it was a suicide or the kid did it.”