An Interview with Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi

Since 2009, Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi have been covering the rape kit backlog for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Their investigative work has explored each facet of the criminal justice response to sexual violence—from rape kit testing to victim re-engagement to prosecution. Their reports have helped to uncover a backlog in Cleveland, to spread awareness about the nationwide backlog and to bring survivors' voices into the conversation. 

ENDTHEBACKLOG connected with Rachel and Leila to talk about their very important and groundbreaking work.

ENDTHEBACKLOG: When did you first learn about your local backlog?

Rachel Dissell and Leila Atassi: In late 2009, the bodies of 11 women were discovered at the home of a man named Anthony Sowell. The women were all minorities and many had mental health and drug addiction issues. They had been raped and strangled. Other women later reported Sowell attacked them, and we began to delve into those cases, including ones not pursued by police because victims were deemed not credible. We began work on a series of stories that explored how law enforcement in Cleveland responded to reports of sexual assault. As part of that series we requested information from the police department, including statistics on reports and evidence collection.

Cleveland police told us in late 2009 that they did not know how many of the sexual assault evidence kits the department had in its possession had been tested. They didn't know the total number of kits it had either. But shortly after we began asking questions the department decided to count the kits, and that process took years. In 2010, while kits were still being counted the Cleveland police chief began sending all new kits for testing. 

In mid-2011, the department said that it had cataloged more than 6,125 kits going back until 1993 (they still have not released numbers on kits going back longer than that), of which about 4,000 had not been tested. In addition, the department later discovered 67 additional boxes of slides from kits that had been partially tested but not for DNA.

ETB: Why did you take on this issue?

RD & LA: We were astonished at first that the department did not know how many kits it possessed or how many had not been tested. In 2009, we knew what the power of DNA was in solving cases, and we wanted to understand why there had not been a major effort to send the kits for testing. We did research on previous policies, costs and other things that may have played into that decision-making. After some of our preliminary reporting, Ohio's Attorney General Mike DeWine decided that the state crime labs he was in charge of would offer to test any previously untested rape kits that departments across the state wanted to send. He urged the departments to clear their shelves but the testing was and still is voluntary and not mandatory. Cleveland vowed to send all its kits and estimates they all should be submitted by summer 2014.

ETB: Why is it important to you and your community that the backlog be addressed?

RD & LA: When we first started reporting on this issue, it was based on numbers. How many rapes reported? How much evidence collected? How many tested? How many prosecutions?

We knew that extraordinarily few rape cases were prosecuted and we wanted to know how this evidence played into that. We also wanted to know to whom the kits belonged. Did the cases have similarities? How many decades-old cases could be solved?

We knew from the work done in a few other places, such as New York, what the possibilities were in terms of hits. But we didn't know how such a massive testing initiative would impact our community or victims—many of who reported crimes so long ago.

We decided to follow the testing each step of the way, from the hits through the prosecutions. In doing so, we hope it can help to answer so many of the "whys" and help inform future public policy in our city and elsewhere.

Right now the project in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located, is nearing almost 100 indictments. Investigators are re-investigating hundreds of cases. We are learning that far more rapes were connected serially than previously realized. We are able to more closely examine patterns and we continue to ask questions about how victims are reacting to being notified that their attacker has been identified. We are facilitating open discussions about the decision-making process that prosecutors must make in terms of these cases, including the balance of supporting victims versus forcing them to relive traumas.

ETB: Why do you think the current backlog exists?

RD & LA: Hindsight, research and interviews with so many people tell us that the answer to that question is complicated. There were so many layers to what we now simply refer to as a backlog. It took awhile for the criminal justice system to view the kits as crime-solving tools, rather than evidence that could support a prosecution. There were questions early on about who should pay for testing and what cases made sense to test.

Cleveland wasn't the only city—as is quite clear now—that struggled with this issue. As testing commences in places across the county, it is clear there is so much to learn.

However, looking now at so many specific cases and details, it is hard not to wonder if the fact that these crimes are primarily reported by women, and often underprivileged or vulnerable women, played into the reasons that until fairly recently not too many people championed this issue.

ETB: What results have you seen thus far from your work on the backlog?

RD & LA: We've been overwhelmed at the results of the testing in terms of the numbers of hits or matches. In Ohio, there's a DNA match in roughly 30 percent of the kits tested. For Cleveland cases, it's nearly 40 percent. We know there are many kits that yield DNA profiles that will continue to make matches in the future.

In following court cases, we know there will be many legal challenges, especially in cases that are decades old. Getting juries to understand the dynamic of sexual assaults is a difficult task for prosecutors in currently reported cases. Older cases carry the same issues of judgment and credibility of victims, though serial cases seem to be the most successful.

We also have seen that far more support and victim services are probably needed to help survivors who are having painful wounds reopened. Victims have such varied reactions to the news in their cases. It seems like having support available in newly reported cases could change the trajectory of some of those cases as well.

ETB: What advice would you give to someone in your role in another city/state?

RD & LA: We tried to keep a detailed database of cases that got hits and were indicted so that we could track numbers but then request original police reports and also track demographic data on the victims and suspects. That, we feel, will help us eventually gain a deeper understanding of the dynamics of the cases in which kits were not tested. 

We also continually reach out to victims who want to tell their stories about the process.

 ETB: What have you learned from your work on the backlog?

RD & LA: That there is yet more work to do in gaining understanding of the people who commit sexual assaults and how to best respond to reports and support victims so that participation in the criminal justice system gets easier, and healing for more victims becomes possible.

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