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Justice Denied

City-County should fund DNA testing for rape

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In 1998, two young women were brutally raped two months apart in Mecklenburg County. For six years, while city officials yapped about trivialities like the arena, art funding and the trolley, their rape kits sat untested in police property control.

Meanwhile, city leaders found time and money for everything under the sun -- their pet projects, convention center promotions, multi-millions in economic development subsidies for wealthy developers, even the creation of a brand name image for Charlotte.

By 2000, after an attack on another woman, investigators had collected Willie Cooper Jr.'s DNA. Yet it would be four more years before those kits were tested and Cooper was arrested. Four blasted years.

The irony here is that the victims in these cases were lucky -- yes lucky, that their kits were among the 30 cold cases that have been selected so far for testing that's being paid for by a federal grant of $95,000. About 70 more will be tested with the funds.

Potentially hundreds more case files that include rapes and homicides sit down in the police property control department, gathering dust. The implications of this are staggering. We could literally have three, four, five serial rapists or murderers at work in Charlotte and the police wouldn't know.

"Nobody knows," said Jane Burton, the head of the microanalysis section of the department's crime lab.

At this point, the police don't even know how many of the old cases need DNA analysis. The department is planning to apply for another grant that will eventually pay for investigators to screen old cases in property control and figure out which of them need DNA testing. If it comes through, future grants will then be required to test those cases -- if they come through.

In the meantime, victims and their families will just have to wait. And if the perps whose DNA sits in property control prey on others? The victims will just have to fight them off as best they can, and if that doesn't work, well, they could always ask these thugs to hold off for a few minutes while they call 911 and wait through the recorded message until an operator finds time to solve their little problem.

That appears to be the city's plan, because amazingly, despite the gravity of this situation, the police haven't asked the city for money to test these cases.

Think about that for a minute. NBA owner Bob Johnson didn't have to wait for a federal grant for his NBA arena, but rape and murder victims have to get in line and hope the feds fork over enough dough so they can some day have justice while new victims are brutalized. Nice, huh?

"You are well aware of the budget constraints that have been placed on the city for the past several years," police Spokesperson Keith Bridges explained in a letter to me this week. "There are other needs and services that have not received funding, or as much funding as we would have liked, due to the budget situation."

Yeah? You mean like the $24,000 the city spent from its general fund to throw an "arena ground blasting" ceremony complete with free drinks and hotdogs last summer and a sound stage so city council members could take credit for the arena before the cameras? That money could have tested 25 cases. Or how about the $2-2.5 million a year it will cost the city starting next year to provide free traffic control to Johnson for all the events held at the new arena, events from which he will receive 100 percent of the profit?

The police shouldn't take the blame for this. They've been diligent in going after these grants, and because the police chief works for the city manager, what the department asks for in its budgets is a reflection of the city's priorities. Clearly, these old cases just don't rank as high on the city's priority list as freebies for the right people or the quality of the art at the transit stations.

Sure, the police got more federal grants this year, but while victims waited for justice and those that brutalized them roamed the streets, the city cut back funding for the lab by $60,000 between 2003 and 2004, the same period it threw the fete for the Bobcats. But if the child of a city council member or high-ranking bureaucrat were assaulted, you can bet your booty the evidence wouldn't have been left to rot in property control.

Sure, city leaders will tell you that Charlotte-Mecklenburg is the only municipality in North Carolina has its own DNA lab, so we're actually better off than most places because we can test new cases more quickly. They're right. But it doesn't do a lot of good if the evidence is sitting down there untested.

The first, most basic duty of government, before economic development schemes and business incubators and symphony concerts, is to protect the people it serves. Let's start now.

Contact Tara Servatius at tara.servatius@cln.com

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