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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
The Observer

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Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy speaks at annual ‘Raise Your Voice’ symposium

Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy spoke at Saint Mary’s College “Raise Your Voice” symposium Monday evening about her work with processing sexual assault kits

Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy spoke at Saint Mary’s College's “Raise Your Voice” symposium Monday evening about her work with processing sexual assault kits. 

This symposium, which included various scheduled lectures and workshops from 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m., was the third annual "Raise Your Voice" event on campus. According to a "Raise Your Voice" flyer, the yearly event began in response to an Observer article about the “explicit account of harassment of Saint Mary’s students” and hopes to bring awareness, prevention and education of sexual violence on campus. 

Worthy spoke as the keynote speaker for the symposium in the O’Laughlin Auditorium at 6 p.m. with a Q&A following afterward. As a Notre Dame law graduate, she worked her way to her current position as the county's first African American woman prosecutor. 

In 2009, her department discovered an evidence warehouse containing over 11,000 untested and sealed sexual assault kits, dating back as early as 1984. Worthy spent the next ten years raising money to process the kits and investigate each case. 

“At the very beginning, there were three things I wanted to do. Number one, really bring some amount of justice to all the women whose lives were represented in those rape kits. Second, I wanted to make sure this would never ever, ever happen again. And thirdly, I wanted to get all the kits tested, and I didn't know how we’re going to do it,” Worthy said.

Worthy recounted how she asked nonprofits for help with her goal, and people in the community hosted fundraising events for testing the kits, which cost between $1,200 and $1,500 per kit at the time. During her fundraising, she met celebrity Mariska Hargitay, who helped the Wayne County police department raise enough money to test all 11,341 kits by using her status to bring greater awareness to the issue. 

To ensure sexual assault kits or investigations wouldn’t be set to the side again, Worthy helped create state legislation that required all sexual assault kits to be tested and investigated. Worthy also developed a tracking system for the kits so the police department could keep track of each kit in the system. 

“​​If you can order something from Amazon and know from the moment that you press pay the time it’s going to land on your doorstep within hours or days. You know exactly when it's supposed to get there, and if it's not, you are on the phone to do whatever you do to find out where it is. And so, that is what we said about a rape kit. If certainly you can do that, then you ought to be able to track a rape kit through the criminal justice system in one state in Michigan,” Worthy said.

Since the establishment of Michigan’s kit tracking system and during the 16-month trial period of testing said system, Worthy stated they didn’t lose a single rape kit after their discovery. 

Worthy went on to explain how Wayne County’s forensic scientists use Forensic Genetic Genealogy (FGG) and the Combined DNA Index System (COCIS) to collect and identify suspects of sexual assault cases through rape kits. By entering the genetic information into these systems, investigators can connect the same suspect to multiple other cases and later charge them with several counts of sexual assault. 

“We have convicted over 250 rapists since 2009. And that may sound like a small number from the other 11,341, but it’s really not. And they represent a whole lot more women because a lot of these were serial rapists. We have identified over 840 serial rapists that were found in that warehouse, in one city, in one county and in one state,” Worthy said. 

Worthy stated the Wayne County police department continues to investigate and convict the rapists of these sexual assault survivors to this day, and every day the department gets closer to convicting another suspect. 

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Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy spoke about her 15-year long mission of processing over 11 thousand sexual assault kits abandoned in a Detroit evidence warehouse.

Worthy pointed out how thousands of these cases went ignored or tossed to the side due to the rape culture that engulfed much of the U.S. surrounding victims and victim blaming.

“When we first started our work, we began to gather files because there were no digital systems. We had to literally go through police records and find 11,000 of them, trying to get information. And when we opened and looked at some of these reports, they would say things like what the police officer wrote down, that they don't believe her. ‘If she were really raped in the field, she would be dirtier.’ Or ‘If she was really raped, then she wouldn't be laughing right now, or she would be having more animation.’ But there is no one way that a sexual assault victim acts … not everybody reacts to trauma in a certain way,” Worthy said. 

After her lecture, she encouraged the audience to watch the 2019 Emmy award-winning documentary, “I Am Evidence,” which focuses on much of Worthy’s work in Wayne County with the sexual assault kits, for more information on the prevention and awareness of sexual assault. 

“You're not alone, and I believe you deserve to be believed. There are people out there who will help you. One of the things that I'm very proud of is … we will move heaven and earth to try to get you services and to try to get you help,” Worthy said.