Federal grant will aid efforts to test years-old sexual assault kits

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

A federal grant received by the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office will allow investigators to examine and test the majority of more than 4,000 sexual assault kits stuck in a years-long backlog.

“This work can be made possible because the government has given us $2.5 million,” Fulton County DA Fani Willis said in a press conference. “That is a wrong we’re correcting.”

Willis said the grant will allow the DA’s office to hire and pay for two detectives from the Atlanta Police Department to assist; some of the sexual assault kits date back to the 1980s and 90s. Willis said the estimated backlog is about 4,340 unexamined kits, with 3,588 of those kits from Atlanta.

“Each of those 4,342 kits represents a victim,” Willis said. “Every victim we are able to help with this grant and this partnership is a victim that’s really waited too long for justice.”

Willis recounted her team interviewing a victim whose case was decades old. The victim said no one had called her in 37 years. The new grant will not only bring justice to victims, but also close cases and identify suspects before they can strike again, Willis said.

“If those rape kits had been looked at all those years ago, we could’ve avoided sexual assaults and we could’ve avoided all these other crimes,” she said.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Deputy Fulton County District Attorney Julianna Petterson, who oversees the Fulton County Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, said her team had already starting testing the first 300 kits. She said investigators expect to get a “substantial number of DNA profiles.”

A 2015 Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found more than 1,400 kits went untested at Grady Memorial, even though victims wanted them transferred to law enforcement. Police failed to pick them up, and the hospital kept them on the mistaken belief that federal regulations barred their release.

In 2016, the Georgia Legislature passed a law requiring all Georgia law enforcement agencies to send stored rape kits to the GBI headquarters for testing. In 2021, a law was passed that allowed victims of sexual assaults to keep track of evidence in their cases from collection to prosecution.

Willis said one of the issues is that the GBI doesn’t have enough scientists to perform all the tests. As a result, much of the work is then outsourced.

The GBI supports the initiative between the Fulton DA and APD to test the older kits.

“The kits were previously evaluated and tested by the GBI Crime Lab to the extent possible at the time of their submission before the year 1999,” the agency said in a statement “The evidence is currently being held at the crime lab as part of our support for their initiative to utilize current technology to develop investigative leads in older, unsolved cases.”

Willis called it a “historical tragedy” that so many victims have waited to get justice. She said the problem of the backlog is not limited to Georgia.

“Some of these perpetrators live among us and have not stopped their lives of crime,” Willis said.

Willis said she wish she had more money to test all the kits in the backlog and noted that in some cases, the suspect or the victim is already dead.

“We may never get through all of them,” she said, “but what’s exciting is we are whittling them down.”