Putting Policy into Practice to Move Justice Forward
Patricia Melton uses her expertise in forensics to help provide closure to victims and families
- Melton began her career by working with the Department of Defense to identify the remains of fallen service members
- Her current program, SAKI TTA, is helping jurisdictions across the United States clear the backlog of sexual assault kits
- The program also addresses systemic communication issues that prevent sexual assault cases from moving forward
In Cleveland, Ohio, the Cuyahoga County’s Sexual Assault Task Force noted in March that it is close to an indictment in an 800th sexual assault victim’s case as it has worked through a backlog of previously unsubmitted and untested sexual assault kits (SAKs). As of February, the task force has opened cases connected to 7,001 SAKs, completed 4,179 investigations, indicted 719 defendants and identified 111 serial rapists.
RTI is currently working with 54 jurisdictions, including Cuyahoga County, nearly half of which are statewide agencies, to provide education, training and technical assistance as part of the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) Training and Technical Assistance (TTA) Program funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The project is designed to assist in the development, implementation and dissemination of best practices for addressing systemic issues that lead to large numbers of unsubmitted SAKs and prevent those issues from reoccurring in the future.
As of September 2018, SAKI sites nationwide had inventoried more than 61,000 SAKs and sent more than 44,000 for testing; of those, more than 6,300 resulted in “hits” within the FBI’s national DNA database.
The SAKI program was designed by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance to create a coordinated community response that promotes survivor healing and ensures just resolution to sexual assault cases through a comprehensive and victim-centered approach, building jurisdictional capacity to prevent accumulation of unsubmitted SAKs in the future, and supporting the investigation and prosecution of cases for which SAKs were previously unsubmitted.
SAKI is the first program to federally support the specific issues associated with unsubmitted SAKs.
In North Carolina alone, there are approximately 15,000 unsubmitted sexual assault kits, ranking among the highest backlogs in the country. In October 2018, the state became a SAKI site.
“So many law enforcement agencies and prosecutors are realizing there is an issue, and they are willing to come to the table to address it,” noted Patricia Melton, RTI senior research forensic scientist and co-director of the SAKI TTA project. “I hope this has started a momentum that will be picked up by state legislation across the country.”
Tackling the Backlog
The issues that lead to the accumulation of unsubmitted SAKs are complicated. There are two common reasons why SAKs were not being tested to support investigations or prosecutions.
First, crime laboratories are sometimes underfunded and overburdened with work and do not have the resources to test the SAKs, especially as more pressing cases line up in their queue.
In the second instance – where RTI focuses its work – law enforcement officials opt not to submit the SAK to the crime laboratory after further investigation into the assault, commonly involving interviewing the survivor.
“We work to address the root cause of why these cases are not being submitted – a cultural disconnect between the value of forensic evidence and understanding the trauma that a victim goes through and their inability to talk about their ordeal,” Melton said.
Members of law enforcement traditionally have been trained to interview suspects to uncover the facts of what happened, she noted.
“When you are trying to interview sexual assault victims, their way of communicating is very different — often they can’t recall the events in a typical sequential order,” Melton added. “The whole scenario of the crime is jumbled and in fragments in their mind and hard for them to articulate. Police weren’t trained adequately on how to have this conversation with a victim.”
As a result, too often police dismiss the victim’s claims because the way that they are expressed does not follow the model that law enforcement has been trained on.
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Melton has focused her career on using science to provide closure to those who have lost loved ones in the military or been the victims of crimes.
Prior to joining RTI, she worked as a forensic DNA practitioner for the Department of Defense Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory identifying human remains from military conflicts. She joined the Defense Department shortly after 9/11 and focused on identifying the remains of soldiers killed in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom and previous military conflicts.
“What appealed to me was the ability to identify human remains — my family is a military family, so I was very interested in the efforts the military had to ID remains from Korea, World War II and Southeast Asia. We are the only country in the world that has a concentrated, supported effort to bring the remains of our fallen soldiers home.”
After that role, Melton felt that she needed to add courtroom experience to her skillset, so she joined the Baltimore County Police Department’s Forensic Services Section in Maryland where she worked on a myriad of different types of crimes.
“When working with the families of homicide victims and sexual assault victims, we hope to bring some sort of closure to them,” Melton said. “Being able to substantiate that the crime did occur is so supportive of the prosecution process. Without that evidence being processed, the case might not go anywhere - sometimes in the laboratory, you are the one piece needed to push justice forward.”
From Policy to Practice
Melton was attracted to RTI because she wanted to promote justice through the application of research.
“How do you take research and craft it into policy and practice that practitioners can pick up and implement and move forward?” she added “RTI is the only place I have found to do that. We have raised the bar on what training and technical assistance is — we have created a gold standard.”