Clearing the sexual assault backlog in the US has become a top priority over the past couple of years, because each rape kit that sits on a shelf untested represents a victim whose case has not yet been investigated.
In Flint, Michigan, the backlog stood at 1,047 untested kits when Jen Janetsky became an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney at the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office.
Prior to the shuttering of the GM plant in Flint, the town was booming with prosperity. Once the plant closed, those who could leave town did, and the tax base was cut in half overnight. 200 police officers turned into 88, leaving only 5 police officers to patrol the streets at night and 1 detective to investigate every sexual assault case. Murdertown, USA was born.
So who would get justice for Jessica, a woman living with a degenerative nerve condition who was raped in front of her husband and small daughter?
In this powerful interview, Jen describes how Flint, Michigan tackled their sexual assault backlog with limited man power, provides tips to other jurisdictions facing similar challenges, and share show she fights to get justice for victims of sexual assault.
Laura: Hi, we’re at ISHI 29 with Jen Janetsky. Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
Jen: I am an Assistant Prosecuting Attorney at the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office, and I came to that role through the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, so the grant program came through, and they were looking to recruit a sex crimes prosecutor, and I was the one that they recruited. So their initial identification had been that they at 1,047 untested kits, and basically were not sure how to proceed from there, and the grant was designed to basically clear our shelves and to turn that unprocessed evidence into (hopefully) convictions. It was a great challenge. I was excited about it, and I actually got hired on full time there after the grant, so yay!
Laura: Fantastic! That’s great! It’s a huge problem. It’s in the headlines every day. Where are you in the stage right now? Where are you in the process? I know you presented today at ISHI. What did you talk about during your presentation?
Jen: Well, the biggest thing I talked about is how we got to 1,047 untested kits, and then what we’ve done to try to clear the shelves, essentially.
Laura: How did we get there?
Jen: Well, I think the story is similar, and I think our story sounds like a lot of other big cities in this country, but how Flint got there is our tax base was cut in half overnight when they shuttered the GM plants, and so everyone who could leave got out, and those that couldn’t stayed, and the tax base was cut in half. The population was cut in half. And, with that cut, came cuts in infrastructure, cuts in policing, cuts in fire, cuts in just about anything that was a basic service. So 200 police officers turned into 88, and what used to be police officers rolling in paired cars every night, all over our city, became 5 officers at best by themselves on any given night policing what had, at that point, become ‘Murdertown, USA’.
Laura: Oh yes, that’s such a rough time. I’m from a former GM town myself, Janesville, so it’s very rough.
Jen: And it is a very common story. It’s a common story, a repeating story, and I think the way out of it is also something that we can replicate.
Laura: Absolutely, yes. Well fantastic. So, the grant, how did that come about and are there more opportunities like that for other people?
Jen: There are. We actually took advantage of 3 separate grants. Our first grant, we actually got through a television show – through TNT’s Cold Case. And they were doing a series specific to sex crimes, Cold Justice, and they came in and they picked 88 kits that they thought were particularly interesting. So they paid for, and did the initial investigation on those 88 kits. We started to see results. Exceptional results, and these cases were not what we expected. I think that we had an idea, or at least we wanted to believe, that when we looked at these kits we’d see that they weren’t very viable, and that’s why they were shelved. But as it turned out, they were very viable cases that we just didn’t have the manpower to investigate.
So once we saw that, we began to look for other ways to fund a program that would clear our shelves, and we got grants through BJA and DANI. District Attorney’s Office of New York has been absolutely instrumental in getting programs started all across the country, and the grants from BJA have kept us all infused with enough manpower and enough funding to make sure that we can get to the bottom.
Laura: That’s great, that’s wonderful.
Jen: And there are more grants, so people should be applying!
Laura: That’s good, because it definitely is a nation-wide problem. Maybe world-wide. I don’t know enough to say.
Jen: It is, and we find that wherever we go, when we talk about our shelves getting piled up, we have people responding from all over the country, and all over the world, that say, “We have the same issue here.” And I think anyone who’s honestly looking at their backlog, there’s work to be done. And it’s not always the same story. With ours, it seems to be a lack of funding, lack of manpower, cuts to infrastructure.
But in other places, and in Michigan for a time, we were allowed as prosecutors to say, “it’s a consent case, it’s a he-said, she-said. I can test the kit, but it’ll be a waste of lab resources.” So, to protect the lab from having to process evidence that results in nothing, we’re going to shelve that kit. And we kept it, because that’s the law, so there it is, but we’re finding that those shelved kits, even when it’s a he-said, she-said, somebody’s known assailant is somebody’s unknown assailant. And those connections that we’re making are fascinating, and they’re changing the way we look at kits in general, because they’re not that kit’s crime, they’re solving all kinds of other crimes once they get in.
Laura: That’s interesting. Can you share anything about particular cases to humanize it, where you’ve had a situation like that.
Jen: Well, the first case we looked at is the one that really… and it’s one of the ones I talked about here. It’s the case – I’m just going to give her first name – but it’s Jessica. And she is an extraordinary person. She is a person who has battled with a degenerative nerve condition her whole life, to the point where it’s put her in a wheelchair, and she’s unable, at this point, to move. She’s got very little mobility in her hand and very little mobility in her foot, but generally cannot do anything without assistance.
She was kit #1 basically. She was the first kit we pulled off the shelf. She had been sexually assaulted in her own home, and her husband and her daughter, who’s under two, were held at knife point while she was sexually assaulted right there in the same room in front of them, and because she had been wheelchair bound, and because of the degenerative nature of her disease, she was unable to do anything to defend herself at all. She was just picked up and moved around and put in different positions, and raped every way that he wanted.
She did everything right. She got out of there alive. She reported straight away. A kit was taken. The kit got sent to a detective, and her kit wasn’t investigated, and it was a manpower issue. It wasn’t a lack of wanting to solve the crime, or a lack of desire to do what was just and what was right, we just didn’t have enough people. We had one guy trying to every single new CSC that came into Flint at that point. One detective.
So, once we got the kit results back, we found that the person who had raped her linked to a CODIS profile, and his name was Michael Coleman. At the time she was raped, he wasn’t yet in CODIS, but he was in CODIS by the time we ran the kit. And it’s fascinating, and her crime… It was a brutal crime. It ripped the heart out of her family. And, for years, the thing that she carried with her most is that it must not have mattered enough to anybody, because nobody did anything.
Laura: And maybe fear of something happening again.
Jen: Absolutely, sure. Right there in her community. But, when we did approach her again, she was incredibly brave, and she said, “I knew you’d come eventually. I knew you’d come. I will do whatever it takes.” And she had good strong support from her father, and she had a bunch of other people who believed in her, and we took her through prelim, and in the end, he was convicted. He caved on the day of trial and got worried that he would get convicted, so he asked to plead as charged, and he plead as charged, and he’s serving 50-70 years.
Laura: Ok, wow. So that’s quite a remarkable story of what happens when you can clear some of those backlogs.
Jen: Yeah, and for anybody who thinks that these kits don’t have real people behind them, or don’t have viable, prosecutable offenses behind them, Jessica’s story makes that completely clear that it isn’t the case. These are strong, viable cases that we just haven’t looked at.
Laura: That’s amazing. What are you working on now?
Jen: I am working on a number of different things at once. I just finished trying a case that was another case that kind of went under the radar. It was a serial rapist of prostitutes, and there was a time… I’ve been doing this since 1995. I tried my first case in 1995, so at that time even, when you said, “It’s a serial rapist of prostitutes”, there was an awful lot of backlash. Like, well we’re not going to get that viably through with the jury, we won’t get the result that we’re looking for. So, we tended to kind of leave it in limbo. We took the reports, and waited to a point where it tipped, where it was clearly a serial rape, clearly we needed to get after it. In this case, there were two assaults and nothing further after that, so it just kind of sat there in limbo. But that’s the biggest case that I’m working right now, because I managed to convict two of them, but two are still out there, and we have a full DNA profile that has not been identified that is one of the rapists. So, we’re actively working that case to bring the other two, so far unnamed rapists, to justice. So, it’s fascinating.
Laura: It must be remarkable work where it’s very rewarding, but also difficult to go through. How do you manage that?
Jen: I have the best husband in the world. I have five beautiful kids. We find things as a family to do that remind us that the world is full of mostly good people. So, when you’re looking at nothing but bad, it’s easy to pull yourself into a spiral of thinking that everything’s that ever happens is going to be bad, and that’s just not the case. So, I think it takes having support, and it takes being strong enough to ask for help when you need it, because this work is difficult, and the secondary trauma that we carry is very real. And if we don’t address that when it starts to rear it’s ugly head, it can take us under with it, and then we’re no good to anybody. My victims need a champion, and they need somebody who’s going to get up every day and fight, and if I’m not up to that, then I’ve got to get up to that, because there’s nobody coming behind me. I’ve got to do it.
Laura: That’s very well said. That’s beautiful. What would you recommend? What would you recommend to a jurisdiction and an organization that’s facing a backlog and wants to address it? What are the steps that they should take?
Jen: Well, the first step – you’ve got to have the funding to do it. So, look for the grants. They’re out there, and they continue to come. Every year, there’s a new offering, so look for the next offering of a grant. If you’re curious about, or worried about, how you actually write the grant, there’s so many jurisdictions that are out ahead now that you can speak it. It’s Phoenix, and it’s Flint, and it’s the statewide Michigan grant, there’s a Wayne County grant.
There’s jurisdictions all over the country that have been doing this work for years now, and we’re really happy to share what we wrote, how we wrote, why we wrote it the way we did, where our mistakes were, and what we’ve done to correct those in future years, and we’ve kind of gone in and said, “we didn’t think of expert fees. We need experts to come in and testify. We’ve got to add that in.”
We didn’t think about travel costs. Some of our victims have gone out of state at this point, and I’ve got to be able to send my detective to talk with them. So, all of what we did, is first, we did the best we could, and then we figured out where the mistakes were, and then we went back in and said, “Here’s what we missed.” So, talking with other jurisdictions that are out ahead of you, even if they’re only a year or two out ahead of you. We have learned valuable lessons, and we are very happy to share it, because everyone doing this work wants the same result. We all want every single kit tested.
Laura: Absolutely, absolutely. So, it was wonderful that you were able to present this year at ISHI. Why did you agree to do that? What attracted you to this event?
Jen: What I love about ISHI is that there’s such a huge portion of lab. Everytime I speak at a lab conference, it has such a huge impact, because the work that we’re doing… I can’t do my job without the lab people who are doing their job. It’s easy when you’re in the lab to put on the lab coat and get in science mode and not think about the people behind the kits, so what I’m here to do, and whenever I speak in a setting like this, I’m here to remind everyone that all of these scientific tests that you’re doing are ultimately personal samples from a human being, and that human being deserves dignity and justice and you’re part of that battle. I think part of what I’m trying to communicate, and I hope it’s getting through, is all of us are on the same team. We’re all fighting for these victims to get justice. We’re all fighting for justice. And sometimes justice looks like a hit, and sometimes justice looks like it isn’t, and all that give us a data point that’s valid and important, and I can’t do my job without all of the expertise of the people who are largely populating this conference. I was really interested in being here to be sure that I… just to let them know how important they are and how much work… How much I’ve learned, just from watching the way that they do their work and their professionalism.
Laura: I’m sure, and I know for a fact that they appreciate hearing the stories of where their work goes and how it ends and why it’s so important.
Jen: And I think that’s what they don’t hear usually, and I think that’s the kind of comments that I hear when I speak and I go out in the lobby. That’s what people want to talk about. This is not the part that we hear. We know our stuff goes out to the prosecutor’s office, and sometimes we get to talk to the prosecutor, and every now and then we get to think about that victim again, because we get called to testify, but the vast majority of cases, we never see it again. We do the test. We do whatever matching that we can. We do whatever cutting we can. We get the best results that we can, and then we send it off to the ether and hope that it creates a just result. And I’m here to tell ya that it does.
WOULD YOU LIKE TO SEE MORE ARTICLES LIKE THIS? SUBSCRIBE TO THE ISHI BLOG BELOW!