Some cases simply went cold from lack of leads or usable evidence at the time.
Today, even when authorities get a DNA match, finding a victim who is willing to testify is critical — and can be difficult because people move, names change, lives change.
“DNA helps us identify the person, it doesn’t prove the crime,” Freeman said. “We have to prove beyond a reason doubt the person did it and the crime occurred.”
Many victims — surprised, perhaps, and happy to know police are still working their case — agree to cooperate. But not all.
“You are bringing up something that they have worked on and lot of times have tried to put behind them,” Redding said. “Sometimes they have not told their husband or parents. They didn’t tell them then and they don’t want to tell them now.” If a victim refuses to cooperate, prosecutors usually will not pursue the case.
When prosecutors do proceed, every part of the case must be revisited. The case may have been well investigated originally, but memories fade, witnesses die or can’t be located, evidence is lost or misplaced. “You get a new lead now, It’s like a new case. You start all over again,” Redding said.
There is one surprising advantage to prosecuting rape cases years later.
The victims, often characterized by defense attorneys as “young wild, careless, reckless girls,” are now women. Many have matured and changed their lives, Redding said.
“They present themselves much better than they would have back then. We use that as an argument for their credibility,” Redding said.
The most common defense strategy is to argue the victim actually consented. But the fact that a victim is willing to testify to an assault years later can serve as strong evidence, he said.
Closure after 17 years
In one case, the victim was 12. Her mother had kicked her out of the house for the night. She wandered into a rundown apartment building where a man held a razor blade to her throat and raped her.
The case was resurrected with a DNA match in 2011 and a suspect, Phillip Jackson, was charged. The victim traveled from out of state to testify at trial. A jury convicted Jackson of first-degree criminal sexual conduct in July 2012, and he was sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison.
In a victim impact statement submitted at the sentencing, the woman talked of how the assault changed her life.
“The hatred that I was feeling made me a very mean little girl,” she said. She described the immediate fear of pregnancy and contracting a sexually transmitted disease. She also described her lingering fear and distrust of all men.
“It’s sad that it took 17 years to get some closure to being raped, but with that being said, I am extremely grateful to everyone involved,” she said in her statement.
Police say that in many cases, the suspects have long rap sheets. That’s how the DNA got into the system in the first place. “At least half of the cold-case hits are to people that are incarcerated. But some of these guys fly under the radar,” Martin said.