DETROIT — Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy on Monday enlisted some star power in her push for funding and legislation to help clear a backlog of thousands of untested Detroit rape kits.
Mariska Hargitay, from NBC's "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," said during a news conference that the roughly 11,000 untested rape kits found in a Detroit police warehouse in 2009 are part of a nationwide problem and an outrage.
"To me, this is the clearest and most shocking demonstration of how we regard these crimes," said Hargitay, founder and president of the Joyful Heart Foundation, which advocates for rape victims and has made clearing the national rape kit backlog — estimated at 400,000 kits or more — its major priority. "One would assume that if someone endures a four- to six-hour invasive examination, that that evidence would be handled with care."
Worthy said her office, with the help of federal grants and the Michigan State Police and others, has results of DNA testing for 2,000 of the kits, and that testing has already linked the kits to nearly 100 serial rapists, including DeShawn Starks, 32.
Starks — whose DNA linked him to several sexual assaults — was sentenced Monday by a Wayne County circuit judge to serve 45 to 90 years in prison for the crimes.
Starks was charged with multiple counts of criminal sexual conduct as a result of testing performed on untested rape kits found abandoned in a Detroit police warehouse in 2009.
Prosecutors, though, discovered that rape kits linking Starks to sexual assaults had been tested in 2005, but Detroit police did not submit warrant requests for him at the time, said Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office.
"The police did not submit the warrants in 2005; we don't know the reason why," Miller said.
Police acknowledged that warrant requests were not submitted in 2005, despite results from tests linking Starks to two of the cases. One of the cases was retested in 2009 and again connected Starks, but a warrant request was not submitted then either.
"The department missed an opportunity to keep a serial rapist behind bars," Detroit police spokesman Sgt. Michael Woody said.
Police said there are now protocols in place. "In no way would we allow our department or this administration to run without the accountability in place," Woody said.
Starks was in prison when the results came back, serving time for home invasion and weapons offenses, according to the state's online offender database.
Michigan Department of Corrections spokesman Russ Marlan said the agency was not notified in 2005 that Starks was a suspect in sexual assault cases. If the department is notified someone is a felony suspect, that is something that would come to the attention of the parole board, he said.
Starks was paroled in March 2013. He was arrested in connection with the sexual assaults in August, Marlan said.
Under plea agreements, Starks pleaded no contest to three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in connection with the cases.
During Starks' sentencing, Assistant Wayne County Prosecutor Tanya Abdelnour read aloud a statement submitted by one of his victims, who said she has nightmares.
"But as of today, the Lord has blessed me with some closure, knowing that the person that created this bad dream is going to pay for his actions," the woman wrote. "So from this day forward, even if I continue to have the nightmares, I can wake up from it knowing that this is over."
After the sentencing, Starks' attorney Carl Jordan called the sentence a "fair, just and reasonable resolution" for everyone involved. Asked about the push to test rape kits, Jordan said: "Anytime that the prosecutor can get to the truth, I think that's a benefit to society."
Jordan said questions still have to be answered, though, about why kits were not tested when they should have been.
"When you have a rape kit that is tested so long after the incident was supposed to have occurred, well that can cause problems for both sides — not just the prosecutor, but also the defense," he said.
Worthy said her office, with the help of federal grants and the Michigan State Police and others, has results of DNA testing for 2,000 of the kits, and that testing has already linked the kits to nearly 100 serial rapists, including Starks.
The state of Michigan recently appropriated $4 million to send the last roughly 7,400 kits to private labs for testing, and the State Police recently said all the kits should be tested by the end of this year.
Worthy said testing the kits is only part of the work. Even when there is a DNA hit with a named suspect, much police work — including finding victims from crimes that are in some cases 25 years old — must be completed before an arrest can be made.
"Right now, we've got over 200 rape kit hits that we've gotten that we haven't gotten to" for further follow-up investigation, Worthy said.
Worthy said she's met with state lawmakers and representatives of the governor and the attorney general, and legislation soon will be introduced in Lansing to provide a more speedy processing of rape kits and allow for more victim input. Worthy said she also wants legislation to make Michigan the first state to track all rape kits as they go through the criminal justice system.
If the technology exists to track packages after making a purchase online, it should also be available to track rape kits, Worthy said.