Every day, our journalism dismantles barriers and shines a light on the critical overlooked and under-reported issues important to all North Carolinians.
Before you go …
If you like what you are reading and believe in independent, nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism like ours—journalism the way it should be—please contribute to keep us going. Reporting like this isn’t free to produce and we cannot do this alone. Thank you!
Two years after the General Assembly changed state law to mandate testing of sexual assault kits, law enforcement agencies are charging suspects with rapes committed decades ago.
North Carolina was once the state with the highest number of untested rape kits, estimated in the thousands. Each kit housed the evidence of a victim’s violation, with some containing a cache of information that one day might lead to a rapist. The kits were never tested and shelved.
Some rapists who were eventually convicted committed multiple rapes in their communities, terrorizing women and families in the days when DNA was not on the tip of every tongue or when law enforcement did not take victims seriously.
The DNA collected, sometimes decades ago, often reveals clues about those responsible for past assaults.
The General Assembly passed the Survivor Act in 2019, which provided $6 million over two years for kit testing, along with a process for law enforcement to follow to ensure such a backlog never happens again.
“To the rapists in North Carolina: No matter how long ago your crime was, we are coming for you,” said state Attorney General Josh Stein in 2019 as he urged the passage of the act.
The bill advanced with bipartisan support, with Gov. Roy Cooper signing in September 2019, when an estimated 30 years’ worth of rape kits were in the backlog — kept anywhere from hospital shelves to police department storage rooms.
Tackling the backlog
It can be slow going as kits wait in line for as much as nine months to a year, and then scientists try to coax the DNA from the evidence.
“It’s not something where we can snap our fingers and arrests happen,” Stein said in a recent interview. “It’s a very painstaking, laborious process and it doesn’t always produce a result.”
To date, more than half of the old rape kits have been either tested or are in some process of testing. Of those, 3,756 kits have completed testing. Scientists have so far been able to extract a valid DNA sample from 1,379 kits, and of those 41%, or about 560, were a match on the federal Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS — meaning it matched to a known person, or to someone else’s DNA in the database who is connected to another crime.
“It has resulted in 43 arrests already,” Stein said. “That’s incredibly rewarding, knowing that these folks are not going to be able to hurt other people.”
Those 43 arrests have been connected to 61 assaults throughout North Carolina. Charges also include kidnapping, robbery and attempted murder.
Cumberland County got a jump start on testing rape kits prior to the Survivor Act through a federal grant, which shows the potential that testing old evidence can bring to convict people of crimes sometimes decades old.
Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said his office has overseen 25-30 sexual assault cold cases from old kits, some of which are pending in the legal system.
“We aggressively pursue these cases, both from an investigative point of view and a prosecutorial point of view,” West said.
Willie Pearl Mack was already jailed for two other cold-case sexual assaults, then connected to another cold rape case after a rape kit more than 20 years old was tested.
Another alleged rapist was arrested after a kit from a 2009 assault was tested. Michael Anthony Lee was later charged with second-degree rape.
Multiple men have been convicted of rapes committed as far back as the 1980s — a time when DNA was not commonly used to solve crimes and when police and prosecutors did not interview victims with as much understanding of trauma’s effect on the brain.
Wilbur Donnell McGill, known as “the Mazarick Park Rapist,” pleaded guilty in early 2019 to two counts of second-degree rape, two counts of kidnapping and two counts of robbery, and was sentenced to 40 years in prison. Testing of an old kit from events in the mid- ’80s led to his arrest and conviction, according to West.
Both the N.C. House and the Senate budgets include another $9 million to continue testing these old rape kits, Stein said. He said he’d also like another 12 crime lab scientists to meet law enforcement expectations for analyzing evidence and avoid future backlogs.
“It’s absolutely imperative that we follow through on our commitment to eliminate the backlog of untested sexual assault kits in North Carolina,” Stein said. “These people, these victims, experienced terrible trauma and then willingly gave evidence over to the criminal justice system. … We need to follow through on our duty to those victims.”
Law enforcement agencies are asking the crime lab to test rape kits more often than in the past, more than doubling previous submissions, according to an attorney general’s report.
Notifying law enforcement of a match
A match in the federal CODIS database sets a chain of events in motion. Notifications of a DNA match move from the crime lab to local law enforcement, whose officers then can work with the State Bureau of Investigation and local prosecutors to work on the cold case.
Those DNA profiles remain in the CODIS system, said Vanessa Martinucci, state crime lab director.
“If there is another profile in the database that (it could match to), that could happen within 24 hours,” Martinucci said. “Otherwise, it searches continuously, and it can take any amount of time until that other profile is entered.”
When there is a hit, the state crime lab sends a letter to the law enforcement agency and the district attorney for that agency notifying them of a match.
The letter “offers the assistance of the SBI for any follow-up they may need or any help in the investigation, they may be for these CODIS hits, especially since they are very old, and they require a lot of investigation sometimes,” Martinucci said.
A positive hit also may kick off a search for the victims and the perpetrators, some of whom may have died in the meantime. Some victims also cannot be found after such a long time.
“We’ve had some victims who are contacted and don’t wish to proceed with prosecution,” said Kendra Montgomery-Blinn, head of the Durham County District Attorney’s Special Victims Unit. “We hope that, for them, just knowing the results, knowing it was tested as a comfort. You know, it’s a lot to learn that all at once.”
Serial rapists caught in DNA web
Montgomery-Blinn said she remembers when her office received the results from the first batch of testing old kits.
“The first set of results we started getting was showing us that we were hitting serial rapists, which wasn’t particularly surprising, but it still felt really significant to us when we would get a hit,” she said.
Sometimes those people had been previously convicted of other crimes, such as domestic violence or other rapes, she said. In the last two years, the Durham office has convicted three people and has 13 pending cases.
Among the convictions in Durham County is Michael Brooks Jr., who in August pleaded guilty to one count of first-degree rape, two counts of second-degree rape and one count of assault on a handicapped person, according to the News and Observer. He had been linked to nine assaults but charged in three.
While more than half of completely tested kits do not have usable DNA, those kits will be saved. Perhaps future improvements in DNA technology could unlock secrets in those rape kits where usable DNA was not extracted or the samples were too small, Montgomery-Blinn said.
For many of those cases, it may only be a matter of time before the DNA they left behind catches up to them.
“I wonder sometimes if somewhere down the road, we’ll return to kits that we couldn’t get results on and submit them to more advanced testing that becomes available and have another round of testing on kits with new technology,” Montgomery-Blinn said.