Ashley Spence was the victim of a brutal home invasion and rape when she was a college student at just 19-years-old, but she does not let that define her. Taking time to heal in a new state, she received a call that after 7 years, one more attack, and another attempted attack, a DNA match was made and the man who assaulted Ashley had been identified.
Laws differ from state to state, and California is one of 18 states that collect DNA from perpetrators upon arrest for a felony. Knowing that her attacker may not have been identified if her attacker been arrested in Arizona, where the assault originally took place, Ashley has created the DNA Justice Project and made it her mission to educate both policy makers and the public on DNA felony arrestee laws.
In this interview, Ashley talks about her path to healing and building the fortitude needed to confront her attacker during trial. She also discusses how she became an advocate for policy change, the mentors who have helped guide her, the progress that’s been made, and the work still to be done.
Laura: Thank you so much for joining us from the annual video series from the International Symposium on Human Identification or ISHI. We’re in our 33rd year, and we’re so so happy to welcome Ashley here today. Ashley Spence, we are very luck to have you presenting here with us. Before we get into your presentation, why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background?
Ashley: Well I am the honored one. I was the victim of a very brutal home invasion and rape when I was 19 years old. I was in college, and it was in the middle of the night and a stranger/intruder came into my apartment. I was fortunate enough to have physically survived, but of course, the invisible wounds and the scars that it leaves was something that I battled. I still do, but through that, seven years passed.
I worked day and night with detectives and there were no leads, but eventually, in 2010, I received a shocking call. There was a DNA match made. I couldn’t believe it! And now, he’s in prison for nearly 138 years thanks to the work of what I call my “group of angels”: the law enforcement officers, the forensic nurse, the DNA analyst, the prosecutor, the detectives that never gave up. You know, this team of heroes, as well as this DNA and DNA technology, he is never able to hurt another person again and that was something that haunted me for years.
So, it has become a life purpose of mine (a passion) to spread awareness of how we can maximize the use of forensic DNA and technology and I have a foundation now, the DNA Justice Project, and I primarily travel to speak and I work on the education of policy makers and the public on how we utilize this to prevent victims of tomorrow.
Laura: You were so strong to be able to not only talk about this and share your experience and try to help others but to also take that experience and turn it into the foundation that you have and all of the work that you do. Let’s talk more about that work.
Ashley: You know, it’s interesting. I was blessed with amazing parents and my dad would always tell me to look for the good. You want to turn on the news and look for the darkness, you’re going to find it, but in every situation with darkness, there is also light, so that has kind of been my mission, my purpose, my guiding light.
I have two children. I didn’t want to go to trial when it happened. I was scared, and I had just given birth to my son. I had a yoga studio. I had worked so hard to get myself there that I didn’t want to go back. I was terrified, but at that moment, I found out that I was pregnant and it was a girl. So, my kids fuel me to do this work. Really, I think this is about education of people, because there’s a lot of misunderstanding with DNA and the work that I do specifically.
One main focus that I have is that I try to go state to state, because state laws are different everywhere you go. The reason that DNA felony arrestee laws are important to me is because my perpetrator was arrested in California. They’re one of 18 states, currently that have a law that upon all felony arrests, your DNA cheek swab is taken. They took his cheek swab and they took his fingerprints and when they uploaded into CODIS, the national database, it hit a match back to my case all these years before. Had he been arrested in Arizona, where I was raped, where I was assaulted, he would still be out there today free to rape and harm other women, because they don’t have the same law. The offense that he was arrested for would not qualify as an offense they would have taken his DNA for.
So, for me, knowing that the policy work that we need to implement, and it’s hard work, it’s not easy, and we definitely have challenges, but the more that we can educate and come together from all political sides and realize this is a human issue… This is to protect our children and the victims of tomorrow, you know? One step at a time. I hope I continue to make some change.
Laura: I can’t imagine what that felt like and please, if you don’t want to talk about it, I completely understand, but for you, wasn’t there a seven year gap between the act of violence and when you had some resolution or knew something was going to move forward… And, not to mention, then having to go to trial and everything else. But, I mean, seven years. The uncertainty of not knowing where someone is. How do you manage that and still turn it into something that you are passionate about, talking about, and fighting for?
Ashley: You know, the fear was paralyzing. He had told me before he left that if I had told anybody, he would kill me. You know, I never saw his face. He could be watching me. I tried to be strong, and to go to school. Classes started about a week later, and in the middle of one of my classes I had a horrible panic attack and I ran out. You know, is he behind me? He told me he would be watching me. Is he waiting for me like he said? Has he seen me working with detectives? You know, right away I went to law enforcement.
The fear became too much and I dropped out of college. I didn’t want to be seen as a victim and it was all over the news. It was really challenging and there were no leads, so I was like, I’m going to the ocean. I’m going to move to California. I’m not going to be the victim, I’m going to be Ashley and that took me down just a scary, scary path. I didn’t tell anybody, but inside I just suffered. This depression and the numbing… I think there are many people that have survived crimes and sexual assaults and unfortunately they take dangerous paths, because we don’t know how to heal it. There’s still that stigma of shame, so the fear of talking about it, the judgement that comes with it that I hope we can continue to shatter, but that kept me quiet. With that, I began numbing and suppressing with alcohol and NyQuil during the day. I couldn’t sleep at night. I was just living in this constant fear and, you know, it got to be very scary, but I found a healing path through yoga, actually.
I grew up and when I was younger my mom always did it, and I was like, “Why are you breathing like that? What is wrong with you? What are you doing to your body? It’s weird.” But lo and behold it was really something that I found while I was in California, actually, that it really got me on a clear path and I got to get my focus back and I was processing these emotions and feelings and that was just a small part of the healing journey for me.
One of my greatest teachers told me in order to heal, you need to feal, and I’ve done a lot of that work and it’s very very hard, but on the other side of that work is a transformation that can give you strength to do this work and knowing that there’s a community of support and people that I’ve connected with. Rape statistics in the U.S. say it’s 1 in 6, but I can tell you, that when I started telling people after trial after 13 years and I had a studio full of women (yoga studio, right) and I would confide what and when, because they didn’t know I was flying to Arizona for trial. It was still a secret. I was pregnant with my daughter. No one knew and it was 7 out of 8. 7 out of 8 of the women told me in return a story of an assault or an attempted assault that they had never told anyone or very few people knew.
So, that was enough for me to say, “no.” We have to change, and if my voice can be a conduit to it, then I’m all in.
Laura: Actually, that doesn’t surprise me. I’ve had similar experiences. Everyone you talk to, almost every woman. I mean, really, almost every woman, has something and there is a fear of talking about it for whatever reason’s behind that and changing that and letting people speak out and heal and the fact that you were able to do that and now you’re helping other people. You’re providing inspiration, but you’re also fighting to make sure that when it does happen, there are resources available to come to some resolution. Let’s talk more about the legislative side from where you started to where you are now.
Ashley: Yeah, so it’s kind of interesting how I got into it. I had my studio as I was saying, but I’ve done some public speaking before this, and they were trying to get a bill passed. My mentor who has become like a second mother and is wonderful, her daughter was tragically raped and murdered in 2003 in New Mexico, and they spent two years without knowing who the murderer was and she and her family worked tirelessly. She thought that he would get arrested for another crime. They’re gonna take his DNA and he’ll get caught. They told her no, that’s not how it works, and she was devastated. The mother of a daughter that she loved so dearly. So she fought and fought and fought and she got the law changed in New Mexico, but had they had this law, they would have found her daughter, Katie’s, murderer after three months after the attack and not two years.
So, I met her and in Texas, I got to testify in 2019 about the bill, and I had no clue what I was doing. I don’t know if you’ve seen legally blonde, you know, Elle Woods when she was like, “What’s happening?” You know? I had no clue, but I had the heart, ok? I had great mentors and so I met with representatives and a Senator with Jan, and we got a version of the bill passed. It’s not the full bill, but in Texas now we’re collecting for violent felonies and hoping to expand it. We’re really working on that.
In the first year, DPS showed that there were 250 cold case rapes, murders, crimes, assaults that were solved just by expanding it and it’s not to the full expansion. In New Mexico, when they implemented it when Jan was doing this work, they had an 83% match rate increase.
So, what we know is that they are repeat, violent predators. You know, we’re not trying to get the everyday person off the street. These are the repeat people and what happens is that they are committing lower level crimes all along the way. They’re not getting caught for the big rapes and homicides. They’re being caught for the lower-level things, and they’re being caught earlier. It is our duty and our job to protect our communities.
Laura: So, I’m sure as you were fighting this legal battle, questions come up about legally owned DNA. So, I’m sure you had to address that in some sense. Is there something you can share with the audience about what you’ve learned about that and your feelings about it?
Ashley: Yeah, as you know, I’ve had to learn a lot, and I’m always learning. I’m always open and talking to as many people from as many different viewpoints and perspectives that I can to gain insight on this. And, from what I’ve also learned is that when you get arrested for a crime and when DNA is taken, it’s very protected, right? So, CODIS has been around since 1998, and there’s never been a breach, but even if they did, it’s so protected. It’s not your whole genome, so it’s not the 3 billion markers that go in there. It’s 20-24 markers that were picked, depending on your state, by genetic scientists. It doesn’t say that I have brown hair, brown eyes, that I’m Lebanese. It doesn’t say if I’m pre-disposed to any genetic diseases. It’s simply numbers. And it also doesn’t have your name on it. It’s just a specimen ID, so it is so protected.
I think that if you’re arrested for a qualifying offense… I mean, my trial was postponed, because we were waiting on a Supreme Court ruling called Maryland v King (it was in 2013) and my trial was postponed nearly five years and it was partly because of this. Thank goodness they upheld it. And they said that taking a DNA cheek swab for qualifying offenses is a reasonable part of the booking procedure under the fourth amendment. So, I wholeheartedly believe in it. It’s protected. Not only does it protect the victims and the future victims, it protects those that are arrested and it is a federal law that you have to be able to expunge your DNA from the system if you are found not guilty.
So, how do we make this easier for people? How do we share with people what the process is? Yes, there’s always ways to improve, but I really believe in the protection of the system wholeheartedly and I think that the education of the public on this is really important so that there’s a greater understanding.
Laura: I really appreciate that. I love that you’re able to speak to both sides. Just the facts that you shared right now, I don’t think the general public may understand that when they’re just reading a high-level article on the differences between legally owned DNA, privacy, all of that. So, I think that really helps illuminate what’s happening. It must be complicated between federal and state law as well in the US.
Ashley: It’s very complex! I’m still learning! It’s very complex. There’s a lot of steps, but with the state by state arrestee laws, you have to go one at a time, but I also think it’s important to note that for me, I believe wholeheartedly that this will make sure that the right people are paying time for their crime.
The one thing that haunts me… I never wanted the wrong person… I never saw his face. I never wanted the wrong person to be serving time for this crime. Knowing, in trial, they were able to prove that it as 38 trillion times more likely that it was this man’s DNA that was on me more than anyone else’s. And what’s cool about the technology, I’m really fascinated by the technology and where it’s advancing. In 2010 (my attack happened in 2003) they did not have the Y-STR analysis method, so they were able to actually retest my DNA and when they redid it through that method and they extracted the X and the Y chromosome, they found his DNA all over me and it aligned with every single story that I told detectives in the beginning, which is a very compelling argument for trial.
Laura: It is remarkable how far the technology has come and provides that double-check. I’ve been working with the conference for 12 years, and watching that progression, it’s remarkable. Every year, something is different. Something that has been in the news for a very long time are the rape kit backlogs. Do you want to address that in any way?
Ashley: I’m so inspired by all the work that people are doing. RAIN, the Joyful Heart Foundation and a lot of crime labs too. There are a lot of good people that are working to fix this, but I do believe the reason I think DNA work is so important is that you can do all of that you can do all of that work on rape kit reform, but if you don’t have the DNA in the database to match it with, what’s it all for? We have to start to enhance this database so that we can get matches and there’s one area that is really really sad and interesting to me, which is uncollected offender DNA, also known as lawfully-owed DNA. According to the Department of Justice, there are 40-50,000 (approximately) per state lawfully-owed DNA samples. So that person has been convicted of a crime. They’ve been arrested for something qualifying; they owe the state their DNA, but they haven’t done it. So, why?
There’s been court hearings and ignored court orders and in a lot of circumstances, I’ve heard, there’s no one watching over it. It’s like ok, you’ve been convicted of this, now go to room 403 and have your DNA taken, and they don’t and it’s just missed. 40-50,000. So, we need to be collecting the DNA samples that are owed to us, because these aren’t just numbers. These are people that are out there that are reoffending. So when you’re looking at the backlog, one way to chip away at that on top of all the other incredible work is through this DNA database. We have to keep enhancing it.
Laura: You’ve talked about Rapid DNA and the importance of that. So, we had this commercially available kit since about 2012, but there has been some hesitation to implement it in some cases, and some very valid. It’s appropriate in some situations and not in others. What are your thoughts on that in regards to what you’re doing?
Ashley: Yeah, so you know as we look at uncollected offender DNA, which is something that I’ve really been immersed in right now, I think that if you’re looking at closing some of these loopholes, I think that Rapid DNA is really good for that. Louisiana has launched it in some of their booking stations. They’re the first state in the nation. They got some pretty big hits right off the bat, so for me, when you look can determine within 90 minutes whether or not someone is connected to any cold cases and within 24 hours altogether… You know, before they can go and flee. Or, you can quickly eliminate or exonerate people who are wrongfully accused. And this will also help to close that loophole, I believe, when utilized in that circumstance. You know, the challenges with the ID, I do some working groups in different states right now, but people are following suit, because they’re seeing that we have this technology and there’s a lot of incredible DNA technology out there – not just Rapid. But Rapid is amazing, because you can free people, you know. So, I think it’s really exciting. I think for our communities that every single second that passes that we have a perpetrator out there is another time for someone to become a victim. Time is of the absolute essence.
Laura: I’m sure all of the information that you’re sharing and your speaking engagements provide hope to other victims and maybe some people who are similar situations and haven’t had any resolution to their case. What would you share with them? Do you have advice that might help them work through while the legal side, while you’re working on that portion of it?
Ashley: You know there’s a two-fold. My heart goes out to anyone who has ever had to endure a sexual assault or who has had a loved one. It doesn’t just impact the victim, it impacts the whole family. Spouses, children. So, my heart really goes out and not everyone’s pathway to healing is going to look the same, so I don’t have a one size fits all, but I do want survivors to feel like we need to create an environment where they’re believed and they’re supported.
So, I call, as I spoke to in the beginning, my heroes, I with everyone had that experience, because the law enforcement officer who picked me up, the first thing he did was made me feel believed. He calmed me. He guided me to have forensic investigations done. I knew nothing about that. I wanted to shower and brush my teeth. I felt disgusting, but he said, “you can’t. Go here.” But I trusted him.
Then I go and have the forensic exam done, and the SANE, the nurse, was so gentle and so kind and she made a safe space for me.
From there, the detectives all treated me with dignity and respect.
I want that for every single victim. Every victim is deserving of that. It’s not that people are bad. There’s a lack of trauma training and a lack of understand. There is a training that goes along with it. If we can make survivors feel believed and treat them with dignity and respect every single step of the way, even if the outcome is not that we catch the guy, to know that they are supported and believed creates the utmost healing. So, that is my wish for every victim and knowing that there is hope, and I’m not going to lie – it is hard. Knowing that everyday there’s a different battle, but the more you can process it and find a community of support of people that can hold space for you. For me, sharing my story became very therapeutic, so sharing their story, even with a friend, knowing that they’re heard and letting that live. Don’t hide in the shame, but let it come out of the body, and that doesn’t mean you have to tell people. It might be going outside in nature, vitamin D, whatever works for you, but just take care of yourself and know that you’re worthy of all the healing and all the love and know that no one can ever take your power.
Laura: I think that is so well said and actually leaves me without words, because it’s so beautifully said. What about if you’re afraid to report it, because of many different reasons. Have you come across that? Have people reported it later? Have you spoke with victims about what that looks like?
Ashley: Absolutely. You know, mine was, let me tell you it wasn’t perfect, but it was a stranger in the middle of the night, so the fear of, say, if you’re gong on a date with somebody or you’re out at a party. So what? I didn’t have all that, but I still got questioned and I still got drilled at trial, in spite of all of that, but having to deal with that is really a lot for victims. I also want to say that it’s interesting, because I talked with the forensic nurse in my case and she’s actually become a friend of mine. We’ve been to wine country now and all the things, but we have this conversation a lot, in all serious, but if you’re in college in a sorority and there’s someone that’s attacking you… College kids are very vulnerable to this and they’re very susceptible. If you all start speaking out, and it’s scary, but if you all do, and you all get your DNA collected, all of a sudden, this person, this person, and the DNA is all matching up, we’re going to catch that guy. You know? But it is scary, but the more that we can speak out and again, it’s not for everybody. I don’t want to say that everybody needs to speak out. Every situation is very different, and I just encourage the victim survivor to do what feels right to them, but there is a process and even just getting the evidence collected in a good and caring way, there’s healing that comes from that alone. You’re treated with dignity and someone’s believing you, so whatever the pathway is, it’s going to look different, but find that courage to do whatever’s going to provide that healing for you.
Laura: I think that by putting your personal story out there, should something happen to somebody after they heard your story, they might be more likely to report it and feel more comfortable and know that they will be supported and there are resources available for them.
Ashley: Absolutely, and we have to shift the narrative. It’s not our fault. And we’re not shamed, we’re not broken, we’re not damaged. Whoever did it is damaged. We are not. We are still whole and we are still light and knowing that you can go out there and share in whatever way or speak up and have your dignity and your respect and be treated that way, it’s imperative that you first need to know that. It was never you and you’re not damaged. You’re whole.
Laura: Absolutely. Do you think the movements in the recent years has helped to open the conversation?
Ashley: Absolutely I do, and I feel grateful that I get to live this country. I know it gets so divided. Even being in DC, I get so emotional, because we’re so fortunate, and we’ve come a long way, but we still have a really long way to go. Incredibly. But the more that we can speak up about this and shine a light on it. The more that we can shine the light on this and come up with solutions and talk about it, the less it will happen, because more people will be speaking up. And the fear breeds in darkness, so let’s bring it to light. Let’s bring it all out.
Laura: I think that could be a theme of this entire conference this year. Shining a light on things so that we can really make some real change. Is there anything else about your foundation or your work? What’s next for you that you can share?
Ashley: A lot of legislation. A lot of learnings from less session. It doesn’t always go as planned, but I was reading that rejection is the pathway to success. You just have to accept it, learn and grow and just keep moving. But, I do want to say that everyone that is in this field, I’ve spoken of my heroes, but it’s not just them. Anyone who has dedicated their life to this work, I just want to thank them, because I have children now and knowing that the work that they do, it changes the shape of the world for them, so everyone here at this conference are my heroes. I am completely humbled and honored to be a part and it just means a great deal. The work, keep going – we all need each other.
Laura: We’re so honored to have you here and I’m always so inspired. Turning adversity into growth is not easy and it’s not an overnight process and we see a lot of that here and it’s the stories… Sometimes they haunt me, to be honest, but then the change that we see going forward and when we touch base with the people that are working on projects like this and see what’s happening in the future, it is really really remarkable. We are so lucky to have you with us and we really appreciate it.
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