Monday, May 16, 2011

Rape Kit Tied to Cleveland Serial Killer



I was waiting for a cup of coffee Friday morning, when I caught the front page of my local paper. 

Feminist or not, never do you ever want to read this headline:

"DNA in untested rape kit discovered to match Sowell; 5 women found on Imperial Ave. vanished after attack."

I think we can all agree, "Cleveland Heights police failed to test rape kit linked to serial-killing suspect Anthony Sowell," isn't just bad news-- it's infuriating.

Because really, it's hard enough for a woman to withstand the added trauma of being examined after a rape, feeling vulnerable and violated all over again. And then to learn the "evidence" gathered from her body was unused, allowing her rapist to go free, raping again-- and in this case, killing?!

This is unnacceptable.

Cleveland's Plain Dealer reported "Five of the 11 women whose bodies were found at the Imperial Avenue home of serial-killing suspect Anthony Sowell went missing after Cleveland Heights police failed to test a rape kit that Cuyahoga County prosecutors now say matches Sowell's DNA."

A 41-year-old woman was abducted in April of 2009 from a Cleveland bus stop. The woman said Sowell held her captive and raped her repeatedly for two days before she was able to fight her way out of his home and report the crime. 

"DNA evidence was collected in a rape kit and passed on to Cleveland Heights police. But investigators did nothing with the evidence."

The bodies of Sowell's multiple victims were found in his home six months later.

"He faces the death penalty if convicted. He also is accused of attacking several other women who survived."

And that's what happens when women are not believed-- rapists keep on raping and serial killers walk the streets long enough to kill 5 more victims.

The bodies piled up in Sowell's home until the stench led law enforcement to the scene of the crime. Yet all local police needed to do was verify the rape kit earlier that year-- which is part of their job.

It was confirmed that Sowell's DNA was available in a statewide database, collected during his 15 year sentence for attempted rape. He was released in 2005. Had the rape kit been properly handled, an arrest could have been made sooner and lives could have been saved.

"Cleveland police came under criticism in the months following his arrest after two women came forward to say they also had reported attacks by Sowell but their cases were not properly investigated."

Reports from several women were made months before the bodies were discovered.

"One woman's case was deemed 'not credible' by city prosecutors. Another sobbed before a county judge during a probation violation hearing and told him that when she tried to report that Sowell had raped her, Cleveland police officers laughed."

A metaphor like "dropping the ball" doesn't even begin to describe the atrocity committed by Cleveland police when they chose to not treat rape like a real crime. Their biased and unprofessional attitude during this case makes them just as responsible for Sowell's many victims.

Because the woman attacked at the bus stop was brave enough to come forward with her story once more, the connection was finally made. After a thorough investigation, the Plain Dealer discovered her file was "clearly labeled rape/kidnapping." 

Yet Cleveland Heights police had only reported seven sexual offense for the year and none in the month of April.
   
Throughout March the Plain Dealer published a series covering "The Women of Imperial Avenue."  After each of Sowell's 11 victims was featured in their own cover story, several similarities became glaringly obvious. 

All were women of color. All were low-income. As reporters concluded "many were born into situations that led to almost insurmountable odds against having a successful life. And they show just how powerful the grip of drug addiction can be."

Many had criminal records of their own-- but that doesn't excuse police from protecting them. Each deserved to be safe. In fact, had police served them they way they serve the rest of the city, at least 5 would still be alive today.

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