The initiative to test sexual assault kits and identify suspects for prosecution is now expanding to cold case homicides with “sexual assault components and in unidentified serial sexual assault cases,” according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
The Georgia Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Task Force started in 2017 to get unsubmitted kits tested.
“To date, the task force has been fully operational for over a year and has indicted 23 cases and convicted (four) rapists. Of those convictions, (three) were serial rapists. The task force and its partner agencies’ goal remains to provide victims with comprehensive case assistance,” according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Senate Bill 304, known as the “Compassionate Care for Victims of Sexual Assault Act,” requires law enforcement agencies gathering sexual assault nurse examiner kits to submit the evidence to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation “within 30 days of it being collected.”
The GBI then processes all of the kits for a hit against the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS.
In 2018, Hall County’s chief assistant district attorney Wanda Vance said they received a list of 30 cases referred for investigation.
“I don’t know of any prosecutions through to convictions based solely on that at this point, but we’ve used them in other cases,” Vance said.
The use of the kit in an existing case can be used under Rule 404(b) of the Georgia Evidence Code, in which prosecutors are allowed to present, in certain circumstances, evidence of other crimes.
“It may, however, be admissible for other purposes, including, but not limited to, proof of motive, opportunity, intent, preparation, plan, knowledge, identity, or absence of mistake or accident,” according to the Georgia code.
Regarding the expanded initative, Vance said the Northeastern Judicial Circuit District Attorney’s Office, which includes Hall County, was unaware of any cold case homicides involving sexual assault components.
“We’re aware of ones throughout the years, but they were solved and those defendants are in custody or in prison,” Vance said.
A multi-disciplinary team of local law enforcement, prosecutors and advocates meets quarterly as the sexual assault response team to review open cases.
Jeanne Buffington, executive director of Rape Response, said the most recent sexual assault response team meeting in January had 75 cases on the list from the six counties served by Rape Response. Those counties are Dawson, Forsyth, Hall, Habersham, Lumpkin and White counties.
Vance said an agency may know of other victims, as perpetrators may be committing crimes across jurisdictional lines.
“We all have our different goals and kind of our different ethical requirements in terms of what our job is, but having everybody sit down at the table gives better results for victims,” Vance said.
Buffington said 25-30% of victims will report to law enforcement, according to national averages. Locally, that number is greater than 45%.
“I think that’s a direct reflection of just our partnerships and collaboration together with law enforcement and prosecutors,” Buffington said.
Buffington said it takes a female victim on average 10 years to disclose, and it’s 20 years for male victims.
“As an advocacy agency, we’re often working with a survivor who has carried this burden for a long time. I feel really fortunate when we get to be involved with cases where law enforcement and prosecution are involved from the get-go, because I think there’s more of an opportunity for them to heal and move forward,” Buffington said.