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Rape Kits Still Going Untested For DNA In Tennessee

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(Memphis) Rachel Johnson was asleep in her mother’s house.

Her attacker came out of nowhere.

“I felt the weight of a person on my back,” she said. “I turned around and I just saw a black mask.”

He threatened Johnson with a knife, blindfolded her, tied her up and raped her.

“He ended up leaving a lot of DNA. So once that happened I said I know he is going to kill me because somebody doesn’t leave DNA.”

Police caught Anthony Alliano because he used her stolen credit card, but his DNA, his genetic fingerprint, exposed a serial rapist.

That evidence ultimately connected Alliano to seven rape victims.

DNA is an important piece of evidence, but only if it’s used. Back in 2010, WREG investigators uncovered a troubling story.

More than a thousand rape kits, some years old were gathering dust in evidence lockers.

They were never tested for DNA.

At that time, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation said it was vital to test those kits for DNA.

“If they don’t send them in then we can’t test them,” said forensic scientist Donna Nelson. “We can’t generate a DNA profile. We can’t put it in the database and it can’t be searched against all the samples in the database as well as all the samples that are in other states’ databases.”

After our report, Memphis police shipped them to the TBI. The TBI called it “Project Memphis.”

“For 'Project Memphis,' we actually took all the rape kits submitted to us and we spread them out across the state to different labs,” said Kristin Helm, public information officer for the TBI. “It was just easier for us and our personnel to absorb that extra work.”

But here’s where the story takes a twist.

Of the more than 1,500 rape kits shipped to the TBI, only 11 were processed fully to get the DNA profile.

The rest were only tested for serology, which tells investigators whether they are likely to find DNA on the sample.

“So that information is submitted back to the law enforcement agency or the district attorney’s office, Helm said. “Then the DA’s office has to submit a request to us to actually have the full DNA profile extracted on that particular piece of evidence.”

So the TBI makes prosecutors jump through an extra hoop.

“I don’t mind going the hoops because this is a case I already know about and I’ve never declined to sign one,” said Jennifer Nichols, Shelby County Asst. Dist. Atty, chief prosecutor for the Special Victims Unit. “What I want done is the testing. We want the testing. We want to make the cases where we can.”

While everybody says they want the testing, nobody is making it happen.

TBI says it needs more from the DA’s office; the DA office says it needs more from police officers who say they’re following the guidelines the TBI requires.

Bottom line, more than 1,500 rape kits sent to the TBI, 11 submitted for full DNA profiles and a lot of finger pointing.

Other states handle it differently.

“We process those cases essentially when they come through the door,” said Brad Jenkins, with the Virginia Department of Forensic Science.

When they get a rape kit, they process it fully, no questions asked. Kits that produce a DNA profile are immediately uploaded to the DNA database, which already contains DNA profiles of 350,000 people.

“There are literally hundreds of crimes that are solved that way,” he said. “That is one of the powerful reasons why to use a database is that you can solve these crimes that do not have suspects.”

This brings us back to Tennessee and why this matters. In 2003, Alliano raped a 16-year-old girl who had just come home from school. Her rape kit was never tested.

Nine years later, she learned about Alliano’s arrest. She called investigators and asked them to test her rape kit. It’s the only reason anyone knows about victim No. 7.

On the day Alliano was sentenced to 178 years in prison, the victim who almost never got justice – stood in court and told him: “You killed the 16-year-old who came home from school that afternoon. You thought you could scare women away from seeking justice, but you were wrong. You are now powerless.”