Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy Is Tackling Detroit’s Many Unsolved Rape Cases
Special content for MadameNoire Business by Jaimy LeeKym Worthy with actress and activist Mariska Hargitay. Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Joyful Heart Foundation
Kym Worthy built her career as a star prosecutor taking on adversaries such as former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who later resigned over charges and a conviction brought by her office.
But it turns out that one of the biggest adversaries she has taken on is a failed system that allowed 11,000 unprocessed rape test kits to be abandoned in a police storage unit for, in some cases, decades. The discovery in 2009 by one of Worthy’s assistants eventually prompted national recognition about the issue, which has become a point of passion for Worthy.
Over the last few years Worthy and other partners have worked on identifying the problems that led to the unprocessed kits, raising millions of dollars to fund the processing of those kits, helping to pass legislation that sets time limits on when a rape test kit must be processed and also engaging with third party organizations and companies to establish a modern, trackable system that can help prevent this kind of failure from happening again.
When Worthy first learned about the issue, she described her response as “very, very angry” and demanded to know who was responsible for the failure. “I had to step away from the blame game,” she told MadameNoire. “Or I wouldn’t have been able to get anything done.”
So that’s what she did. Now, Detroit and surrounding Wayne County serve as a model for other cities that have faced similar systematic failures when it comes to ensuring rape kits are processed. Memphis had more than 12,000 unprocessed rape kits at one point, while regional hubs such as Cleveland and Las Vegas each had about 4,000 unprocessed kits at the height of the issue. There were an estimated 400,000 unprocessed kits nationwide at one point.
In the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, where Worthy first began working in 1984 and later returned as the prosecutor in 2004, enough funding has been raised to test the entire backlog of kits in Detroit, in part because Detroit negotiated the cost of processing down from $1,500 to $490, Worthy said. About 8,000 of the 11,000 kits have been tested or are being tested. But handling the test results is expected to take time. It’s also expensive. Worthy estimates that it will cost about $10 million to investigate and prosecute those cases.
The first 2,000 kits that were processed led to the identification of 188 serial rapists and conviction of 15 rapists. “It doesn’t do any good to just test the kits,” Worthy said. “They need to be investigated and prosecuted.
The campaign has raised millions of dollars in government grants and private donations to fund the testing of backlogged kits. But Worthy said it’s still not enough. A unique group of private organizations and public entities, including the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, the Michigan Women’s Foundation and the Detroit Crime Commission, announced the formation in January of a new nonprofit called Enough Said to raise money to address the issue.
One factor that contributed to the backlog is Detroit’s financial crisis. In many ways the city has served as the definitive American example of a failing city. It was the largest U.S. city to file for bankruptcy when it did so in 2013. This was one reason why Worthy says there’s a need for an organization such as Enough Said. “Our lack of a budget and a lack of resources affected this entirely,” she said. “I was not willing to wait until these financial issues were resolved.”
“What happened in the past? She did not want repeated in the future,” said Tye Lembright, customer solutions area manager for UPS, which developed a pilot project in Detroit that created a logistical chain of custody to track the kits from the evidence gathering phase through prosecution. “She is very clear in communicating her expectations.”
What is also clear is that Worthy’s vision for fixing this problem is a driving force in Detroit’s move to make systematic changes to how rape kits are processed. But her attention to the issue also helped create a national discussion and awareness about why hundreds of thousands of unprocessed rape kits were sitting in warehouses in cities across the country.
“As we’re going through our struggles, this has gotten quite a bit of attention,” Worthy said. “It educates people about this issue. It’s not just Detroit.”
Worthy herself is not a Detroit native but her family is tied to the city. As a child she moved around because her family served in the Army. After graduating from the University of Notre Dame Law School, she decided to move to Detroit, joining her family who had moved there when her father took a position with General Motors.
Now 57, she has spent her entire career in the Wayne County prosecutor’s office. Still, she believes there is more work to to.
“We have to bring justice to our victims so it doesn’t happen again,” she said.