The following story is from a survivor who shares the impact the rape kit backlog has had on her life. We thank her and honor her courage in sharing what she has experienced. Some of her story may surface feelings, thoughts or memories that could be uncomfortable. Please know that such reactions are common, and if you are feeling overwhelmed with the information, we encourage you to listen to your intuition as to when and how much of this content is helpful for you to read at this time.
I am a survivor of an extremely violent sexual assault. I will always live every day in deep gratitude that I am still alive to even tell my story.
In the early morning hours of Easter in 1991, I was viciously beaten and raped over the course of several hours. I was left beside a building, in a city industrial park, and eventually managed to crawl to the front door, where security found me and called the police.
My first experience with the police was not pleasant. I was questioned by a myriad of male officers while in a state of shock and panic. I was placed in the back of a police car, bleeding, in pain and left to wait, while an officer shuffled paperwork in the front seat and filled out forms. He then turned the rearview mirror in my direction and asked me, “So, what did you do to make that man rape you?” Needless to say, my experience and safety threshold went downhill from there and my statement was colored by my anger for this officer.
I was then taken to the hospital where an examination took place and a rape kit was collected. The police did not handle my case well. No photos were taken of my injuries, and pictures of the location where they found me weren’t taken until 11 days after my attack! My rape kit was tested and the DNA profile placed in the system, but my case went cold since I did not know who my attacker was. Honestly, my desire to work with the police at that point was minimal, and I don’t even remember anyone contacting me about the results of testing my rape kit. I was relieved to be away from what I considered a failed system that didn’t take what happened to me seriously. Justice was not a term I ever felt would roll off my lips.
In the difficult years that followed, I consciously turned my pain and anger into something productive. I went to counseling, read books, exercised and got involved in trying to help others whose shoes I’ve walked in. My advocate work gave meaning to what I lived through and spreading hope, I found, could be contagious. It took me a very long time to come to terms with what happened to me. I have Epilepsy from the blunt force trauma to my head and will be on medication for the rest of my life to control my seizures. I am forced to live my life around this condition. And while my Epilepsy is a hardship (I even lost my driver’s license for a period of time due to some grand mal seizures), I reminded myself that this is a livable condition. I had reconciled that while my attacker may not have been brought to legal justice, that he would not escape judgment from God and that vengeance was His, not mine. I had to let go of all that anger, and my faith softened my heart and encouraged me to heal. It was a long, hard road of recovery and honestly will take a lifetime, if ever, to heal the emotional scars completely. I had thought I was doing well…as a survivor.
Fast forward to the morning of the 18th anniversary of my attack, March 30, 2009. While at work, I received a call from a St. Louis police officer, who informed me that there was a lead on my case. He stated that my case had linked to a rape case from 2001 when the rape kit from that case was finally tested just recently. I was in shock and found it was hard to breathe. I didn’t even begin to know how to wrap my head around this news. This detective came to my office and showed me several pictures, and the face of the man who had forever changed my life was now an image I could not escape. There was finally a name. This detective was patient. I wanted to know where he lived; why this other rape kit had never been tested…I just couldn’t understand that. I wanted to know if he had been arrested yet. How many others had he inflicted his pain on in the last 18 years? For as far as I thought I had come, I was transported back to the vulnerable, young and abused girl I had been. I was terrified.
I was to find that THIS experience was so different than the one before. THIS detective championed me and set me up with a wonderfully supportive advocate through the YWCA that followed me through the entire court process (I had to repeatedly tell my story in excruciating detail over and over: to the detective, the assistant circuit attorney, the grand jury, my SART advocate, etc.). The Assistant Circuit Attorney handpicked my case, and I was humbled by the attention my cold case received. This detective stayed in regular contact with me on the process of my case and the mandatory retesting of my rape kit. I’m a believer that we are all our own best advocate and I questioned everyone involved in my case at every turn.
We went through the Grand Jury and my attacker was indicted. There was an agonizing and fearful year’s wait for trial, and then it came. The intensity and ugliness of that trial left me shell-shocked and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. THIS time, MY voice, MY truth was heard and I was well supported by the police, the circuit attorney’s office, my YWCA advocate, my family, my friends and my coworkers. In the end, the jury saw the truth. He received three 19-year sentences, allowed to run concurrently. In the judge’s words: “I’m giving you 19 years for the 19 years Joanie had to wait for you to be brought to justice.” It’s hard to express the relief those words gave me. I went home that night and slept better than I had in 19 years!
Because the law that requires violent felons to serve 85% of their sentence did not exist until 1994 and my attack occurred in 1991, my attacker will be up for a parole board hearing after only serving five years of his sentence, for a possible 2017 release date. I will be at this parole board hearing, in May 2015, to ensure this predator stays where he cannot hurt anyone. I’m told I will be making this trip every two to five years, throughout the duration of his sentence, to do my part in ensuring he stays there.
I am sometimes overwhelmed by the knowledge that my attacker could have been caught eight years earlier, and how many others could have been saved from the same fate if that 2001 rape kit had been tested. How many perpetrators could be taken off the streets, how many lives could be saved the lifelong trauma a sexual assault inflicts, if we could get the backlogged rape kits tested? What can be done? Get involved. Write to your senator, your congressperson, the president. Ask for money to be allocated. Ask for accountability and regulations that require these rape kits be tested. Can you imagine how many perpetrators we could get off the streets? I have three little girls and I want the world to be a safer place for them than it was for me.
I am no longer a victim, no longer even a survivor; you see, I consider myself a thriver these days. What happened to me will always be a part of who I am, however, it does not define me and it doesn’t have to define you either!