African American Female Prosecutor Takes A Stand Against Thousands of Untested Rape Kits

WARNING: This article contains sensitive material that may trigger certain audiences, including topics related to, but not limited to, sexual violence, domestic violence, and other forms of abuse.

Kym Worthy, the current prosecutor of Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, is the first African-American woman to serve as a county prosecutor in Michigan. She obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, and then received her law degree at the University of Notre Dame Law School.

In 1984, Kym Worthy began her position as an assistant prosecutor in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, where she held her position for ten years. There, she became the first African-American special assignment prosecutor under Prosecutor John O’Hair. Her conviction rate was over 90%.

From 1994 to 2004, she was a judge on the Wayne County Circuit Court Criminal Division. In 2004, she was appointed by Wayne County judges to replace Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan.

In her 2018 TED Talk, Kym Worthy recalled Wayne County Prosecutor's Office’s discovery of 11,431 rape kits that were found in an abandoned warehouse, many of them stuffed in black garbage bags and spilling out of empty oil drums. Most of the victims were women and some of the rape kits were as old as 40 years old. The age of the rape kit that belonged to the youngest victim was eight years old. Even though this discovery was made during a period of utter chaos, as her office was also handling the arrest and trying conviction of Detroit’s current mayor as well as dealing with the closing of the Detroit Police Department crime lab, Kym was not disheartened- rather she was encouraged to see to it that a rape kit would never go missing ever again.

After the crime of sexual assault occurs, the victim’s body becomes the crime scene. When a victim of sexual assault reports it to the police, a hospital, or a rape crisis center, the victim has the ability to have the doctor and/or nurse collect evidence of the sexual assault by doing an hours-long invasive and exhaustive procedure involving taking photographs and collecting cotton swabs of DNA evidence from the victim’s body. This evidence is taken and preserved in what is called a rape kit.

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When tested, these rape kits can be used to create a genetic profile of the victim’s assailant. Not only are they used to identify their assailant, they are also used to make connections between other sexual assaults, crime scenes, identify serial assailants, and exonerate the wrongfully convicted. However, as Kym Worthy notes in her TED Talk, there are over 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide, allowing assailants to continue to attack and assault individuals across the country.

Kym Worthy’s push to have the 11,431 rape kits tested resulted in the identification of 2,600 suspects, the discovery of 861 serial rapists, and 142 total convictions. However, Kym did not stop there, as she did not want rape kits to go missing ever again. She contacted the United Postal Service (UPS) in order to create a pilot program that attached a web-based tracking system and portal for rape kits that can be accessed by stakeholders. Since the launch of the pilot program in January 2015 and the end of it in May 2016, not a single rape kit went missing.

Kym Worthy sparks hope in the hearts of sexual assault victims and women across the country. Her passion for seeking justice is clear and she continues to be a role model to all women, especially those of color whose voices are often not heard.

If you or someone you know has become a victim to sexual assault, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE.

If you are a member of the Rutgers University Community, you can also contact the Crisis Intervention line at (848) 932-1181 for free and confidential crisis intervention services.