19 Investigates: Cuyahoga County scientists taking 50% longer to process DNA in rape cases

Published: Apr. 20, 2023 at 5:47 PM EDT
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CUYAHOGA COUNTY, Ohio (WOIO) - Advances in DNA technology have allowed law enforcement agencies across the country to crack decades-old cold cases.

It’s also helped investigators put criminals behind bars faster, but a 19 News investigation found that in Cuyahoga County, it’s been taking forensic scientists longer to process DNA in murder and rape cases.

“My life has been upturned, emotionally I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” said Alisa Alfaro, a sexual assault survivor. “It’s hard to sleep since he got me while I was sleeping. So, I’m not sleeping while I’m waiting for these results because that’s the first time, I had been validated that I was raped. Those results came back, and it shows his semen was me that evidence was in me. Finally, somebody believes me.”

Alfaro’s rapist was a man she trusted.

He was her neighbor, her friend, a man who had walked her dogs for two years.

In 2017, Charles Cross broke into her Cleveland Heights apartment in the middle of the night and raped her.

“I got my rape kit that night,” Alfaro said. “The next day had to go back with officers to retrieve my dogs and some clothes and my rapist and his wife came out and they asked me what was going on? And how was I? It was my rapist. Now mind you, they have gone back and forth passed his apartment several times that night, never once knocked on the door or anything because they can’t do anything until they get the test, until they get the results.”

Alfaro said it took three weeks to get her results.

“My whole life had been upended just by the rape itself,” she explained. “I had to move out because my rapist lived right below me. Now what was I supposed to do for three weeks?”

So, she started calling about her rape kit, nonstop.

“I had heard that they had results but couldn’t read the report yet because they were busy,” Alfaro said. “So, after a week of calls, we finally got the report and got the arrest because they can’t, the cops can’t do anything without the results. The prosecution can’t begin. I can’t be validated. Nothing happens until the results are in.”

Eventually, Cross was put behind bars.

“I pushed that hard,” she said. “I was one of the fortunate ones and although he took a plea, and pled guilty to attempted rape and burglary, Judge Safford gave him the maximum on both counts. Eight years on both counts to be run consecutively. So that was 16 years that he gave, which is five years longer than rape.”

While DNA increases detectives’ chances of identifying the perpetrator in many cases it’s also led to an increase in the amount of DNA labs have to process.

Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Gilson says that can put a strain on the system.

“Because it is such a powerful crime-fighting tool, I don’t think labs were initially ready to, you know, deal with the volume of requests that were going to come from law enforcement and other investigators,” Dr. Gilson said.

That’s where the DNA Backlog Reduction Act came in.

Since 2011, the Department of Justice has given close to $500 million to states and cities across the country to help prevent a backlog of DNA evidence.

“Obviously, you know, when you have that kind of a backlog, leads go cold, or you’re kind of you know, not putting bad guys away, you know, in a very timely fashion and so, what the federal government opted to do was to actually allocate, I think there’s about $5 billion and say, we need to fix this backlog issue,” Dr. Gilson said.

The grant established a 30-day benchmark for evidence to be processed in the lab.

But based on the recent numbers, Cuyahoga County isn’t meeting that mark.

The average time it took to process rape kits in 2020 was around 36 days, in 2021 it went up to 53 days and in 2022 it took more than 79 days on average for forensic scientists to process rape kits.

“The hard thing about using that benchmark, you know, 30 days is, it really talks about what was the state of the art 15 years ago,” Dr. Gilson explained. “So, since that time I came in 2011, we’ve upgraded the sort of basis of our testing, so we can explore lower levels of DNA than we could 15 years ago, in order to generate profiles, the trade-off on that as it takes more time. So that’s one thing that’s impacting us, you know, is just the sensitivity of the testing that we can do.”

My investigation found that there was a nearly 50% increase in the time it took Cuyahoga County scientists to process rape kits from 2022 to 2021 and from 2020 to 2022 there was a nearly 120% increase.

Let’s compare that with the total number of rapes.

The medical examiner’s office processed 410 rape kits in 2021 and 414 in 2022.

Nearly the same amount of evidence, but it took nearly a month longer for scientists to process it.

“Nobody’s going to believe us,” Alfaro said. “We’re afraid to go through the process. We’re weak, we’re ashamed. Maybe we weren’t wearing the right thing. Maybe we got drunk and smiled. We’ve got 8,000 different reasons why we don’t.”

Alfaro knows just how difficult it is to report a rape to the police and after two weeks of waiting for her rape kit results the Cleveland Heights woman started calling the lab nonstop.

A week later her rape kit was processed, and her rapist was locked up.

“Even in your own head, you kind of doubting yourself What did I do to make this happen? Or did I give the wrong sign,” she explained. “So, you’re already dealing with that doubt. Again, the officers they weren’t trained. I knew they didn’t believe me. I knew they kept referring to it as sex when it wasn’t but to just get that and to know that he finally got arrested and he’s off the streets. He’s now off the streets, I can finally go back home, I can finally start now the prosecution process and start to get justice. I just got validation finally that I had been raped and now I can get justice.”

Dr. Gilson said the 50% increase in processing time is not as alarming as it sounds.

“Ideally, you know, if I had, you know, an open infinite budget, we would get it under 30 days but the point of what I’m trying to say is that the increase is there,” Dr. Gilson said. “There are a lot of moving parts to why the increase is there but its impact on the administration of justice isn’t significant. I mean, you don’t have to take my word for it, you can talk to the prosecutor or somebody else about that but in terms of, you know, our perception at least interacting with the prosecutor’s office, that’s not an unacceptable turnaround time and in comparison to other laboratories across the country, which we do monitor, there are no defined accreditation standards for things like this across the country. So, what we try to do is monitor whether other laboratories’ turnaround times are that ballpark, you know, which again for us represents a 50% increase is still kind of within the acceptable range.”

19 News asked the Cuyahoga County Prosecutor’s Office if the increase in DNA processing time has delayed justice in any of their cases and they declined my request for an interview saying, “Our office respectfully declines to comment or interview.”

“It’s vague and that it’s not a response,” Alfaro said. “It didn’t answer anything. I mean, they of all people know that they won’t file charges unless they have that rape kit. I’d like to see cases where they filed without the results. I don’t think you’ll find those though. So that’s the first step. It’s critical.”

I also discovered there was a more than 19% increase in the turnaround time for processing DNA in murder cases from 2022 to 2021.

It took 85 days in 2021 and 101 days last year.

At the same time, there were fewer murders. Cuyahoga County processed DNA from 253 murders in 2021 and 231 murders in 2022.

“Those are very complicated cases and unlike swabs, and a sexual assault kit, which is, you know, a finite number, you can have tremendous amounts of evidence collected from a homicide scene, shell casings, you know, other evidence, vehicles, etc.,” Dr. Gilson said.

In 2022, Cuyahoga County had 12 scientists working in the DNA department compared with 11 in 2021.

19 News learned there is no dedicated rape kit division.

“I’d like to see a dedicated group in each office, be at the ME’s office, or BCI, that is dedicated to rape kit analysis, stick to that 30 days or less,” Alfaro said.

Alfaro said even three weeks to her felt like an eternity.

“It’s a long time, we don’t have a lot to work with,” she said. “The wheels of justice, we know move slowly. I would like to see it within a week. Like I said, if we could get a baseline DNA, we could at least get them arrested in a week, and then we can do the rest. But we do need probably more funding. We need more oversight of the funding that they’ve already received, and we just need to get these in and out quickly.”

In 2020, there were 36 rape kits that took more than 30 days to process, compared to 142 in 2021.

In 2020, there was one rape kit that took between two to three months to process, and there were seven in 2021.

The medical examiner’s office said they do prioritize certain high-profile rape or murder cases so that can cause a bit of a delay for other cases.