In December 2015, the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office embarked on a $1 million project to test 1,500 rape evidence kits that had been sitting on its shelves for as long as 40 years.
The initiative came on the heels of both state and nationwide efforts to test DNA in years-old rape cases. Similar efforts in others cities have led to dozens and even hundreds of arrests, giving victims long denied a chance at justice the opportunity to face their attackers in court.
Two-and-a-half years and nearly 1,000 tested rape kits later, the tests produced 140 DNA matches to suspects in a national crime database and created dozens of new leads in previously unsolved cases. Yet PBSO deputies have failed to make a single arrest.
A Palm Beach Post review of more than 1,200 pages of police reports also shows that deputies did not attempt to contact the victim or suspect in at least half the 82 cases with new leads. In 11 of those cases, investigators said the statute of limitations had expired, but in the vast majority, they made no such claim.
How is your TV dressed?
Such questions, said attorney Takisha Richardson, who until recently prosecuted rape cases as head of the Special Victims Unit of the Palm Beach County State Attorney’s Office, are inappropriate in sexual assault cases and a sign of problems with “rape culture” across the nation.
Richardson, who now represents sexual assault victims in civil litigation for Cohn Milstein Sellers & Toll, remembered how she and other prosecutors illuminated prospective rape case jurors to the problem. She asked jurors to imagine they had gone home and found their television had been stolen.
Would an officer arriving at the scene ask them how the television was dressed? Would they ask whether the juror was sure he or she really didn’t want the thief to steal it?
“No, they would just start off by believing them,” Richardson said. “If someone snatched your purse and you could provide a description of who took it, law enforcement would be on the lookout. But when someone violates another person’s body, oftentimes we don’t put a value on that.”
Richardson said a few PBSO detectives assigned to tackling backlogged cases, including Sclafani, were among the best. But even she said a previous lack of cooperation should not stop deputies from attempting to contact victims when new leads arise.
“That’s not OK,” said Richardson. “You make the attempt no matter what.”
Suspects never contacted
Even when PBSO followed up with victims after years of inaction, detectives never spoke to the suspects.
Police typically do not interview rape suspects until after the victims confirm they want to move forward with prosecution, said Richardson, the former prosecutor. Otherwise, she said, suspects may assert their right to an attorney, in which case police can no longer bring them in for questioning without a lawyer present.
But only two cases reached the point where PBSO attempted to contact a suspect, reports show, and both attempts were unsuccessful.
In several cases, the victim told PBSO she wanted to reopen the case because of a DNA match but lost interest after deputies told her she would need to be reinterviewed, meet with a police sketch artist or pick the suspect out of a photo lineup.
Although Richardson said even a confession from a suspect does not guarantee a conviction from a jury, Daugherty and other advocates say police could try to talk to them or, if nothing else, put them on notice. If they’re guilty, they may think twice before raping again.
The full investigative report can be accessed at The Palm Beach Post.