When 11,314 untested rape kits were discovered in a police storage unit in Detroit in 2009, Kym Worthy and Kim Trent mobilized Black women and men to demand justice for the survivors.
Kim Trent, a career public servant in Michigan, and Kym Worthy, the Wayne County, Michigan Prosecutor, went to lunch one afternoon at a small pizza shop in Eastern Market. A woman working there seemed to want to speak to them but didn’t approach. Finally, one of the woman’s co-workers nudged her over, and the woman said, “I just wanted to come over and say, ‘Thank you… I feel like you gave me my life back.”
The pizza shop employee was one of over 11,000 people – primarily Black women and girls – whose rape kit had stagnated, sealed and untested, in a forgotten police evidence storage facility for years until Kym Worthy and Kim Trent got involved.
In 2009, Kym Worthy and the prosecutor’s office focused on a crisis brewing in Detroit’s crime lab. The lab had failed to meet “essential standards.” In response, Worthy ordered an audit of all forensic evidence stored in police custody, anticipating her staff would spend long hours in the major property room of the Detroit Police Department, sifting through evidence collected, catalogued, and tested. She would soon learn that she was incorrect.
A member of Worthy’s team, an expert in handling evidence, was given a tour of an old, annexed overflow storage warehouse. As he walked with a group of police officers, he noticed stacks and stacks of what appeared to be banker’s boxes. He asked what was in them.
Rape kits, came the offhand answer.
Curious, he left the tour and opened a box. The rape kits inside were sealed, meaning no one had ever tested them. He opened box after box, only to find the same result: although every victim had been subjected to an invasive test to collect evidence, not one kit had been tested. A full accounting later revealed 11,314 untested kits spanning three decades. Nearly 90% of the kits represented Black women and girls.
“I was surprised, but not surprised,” Worthy said about her reaction to the discovery of the untested rape kits. “Thinking, ‘Only in Detroit.’ I knew that all of those kits were attached to a woman or a man or a child, mostly women, obviously, and each and every one of them had not had any justice. And so, I knew that I wanted to get them all tested.”
Detroit, however, was in economic turmoil. “We had a money issue, so I didn’t know how that was going to happen,” Worthy lamented. The auto industry had collapsed and was bailed out by the federal government. The city’s finances, in dire straits, would lead to the first municipal bankruptcy in US history. At first, Worthy couldn’t find anyone willing to help. In some cases, the people she asked for help even tried to dissuade her—Detroit, they argued, had more significant issues than untested rape kits.
After a year of unsuccessful fundraising to test the kits, an associate of Worthy’s took up the cause and reached out to the US Attorney General. As a result, a random sampling of 400 kits was tested using funding from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. Based on those results, the National Institute of Justice paid to test another 1600 kits.
A National Institute of Justice study sought answers as to why the Detroit kits were left untested. The study revealed profoundly ingrained misogyny in law enforcement led to victim-blaming and disbelieving the victim.
“If you were talking about a homicide or another violent crime that didn’t involve mostly women, we wouldn’t have an issue,” Worthy notes, “but it’s the great disrespect that the police, at the time, had for the sexual assault victim. ‘She must be lying; we don’t believe her.’ No one would walk into a police station and talk to a police officer when they’ve been the subject of a carjacking, and the officer wouldn’t believe them before anything ever came out of their mouth.”
The Detroit Free Press further confirmed the disbelief of victims in a report about a 14-year-old girl who was abducted, taken to an abandoned home, and raped. When her mother took her to the police station to report the crime, the officer and desk sergeant convinced them not to press charges. The desk sergeant wrote in her report, “This heifer is tripping. She doesn’t even smell like a rape victim.” That happened over and over again.
The initial 2,000 rape kits tested led to 670 hits in the national DNA database, the identification of 188 serial rapists, and 15 convictions, as well as the study’s findings. But it also left 9,341 kits untested. Again, almost ten thousand people—primarily Black women—were left without justice.
Over the next few years, Worthy persevered and raised $8 million to test additional kits. But five years into her efforts, she seemed to have exhausted private, state, and county resources, and too many kits remained sealed in their boxes. However, Worthy’s early success and the public acknowledgement of the underlying hate experienced by the victims would prove to be a call to action for the women of Detroit. Emboldened by Worthy’s courage, the Michigan Women’s Foundation partnered with her office to raise funds needed to test all the kits and pursue convictions with the evidence uncovered. Then Kim Trent began empowering other Black women (and men) to stand for justice.
The remaining 1,340 kits cost $490 each to test. Under Trent’s leadership, the African American 490 Challenge at the Michigan Women’s Foundation pledged to raise $657,000. Trent said the story about the desk sergeant and an online argument with an acquaintance about sexual assault motivated her to become involved.
“Rape culture is pervasive in every facet of our society,” she says, “but for the people who are really charged with protecting us to be so immersed in rape culture was shocking to me. Now I feel like I was incredibly naïve, but I was. [My friend] was defending the celebrity [acused of sexual assault] to the point that she said something horrible about me. I said, ‘I’m not going to fight with you anymore. I’m going to call Kym Worthy tomorrow, and I’m going to start working on this rape kit issue personally, in a meaningful way, because I’m so angry right now. I have to do something with my energy.’
Four days later, Trent, Worthy, and the leaders of the Michigan Women’s Foundation stood on the steps in front of the Detroit Association of Women Club along with almost every prominent Black woman in Detroit, as well as every central Black women’s organization, including sororities and business groups, as well as elected officials, and individual business leaders. There were also fraternities and groups of friends. All committed to bringing justice to the rape and sexual assault victims, even though some of the kits were decades old.
“It was so powerful,” Trent says. “Everybody who was there was so overwhelmed.”
The people assembled on the steps used multiple strategies to raise the remaining funds. Delta Sigma Theta and Alpha Kappa Alpha sororities hosted a fundraising competition. They used the rivalry between Michigan State University and the University of Michigan to raise funds from football fans. Businesses, restaurants, and shops dedicated profits from special sales promotions to cover the cost of testing rape kits. The First Ladies of Wayne County, a group of pastor’s wives, pledged to raise $50,000.
A parallel effort, the African American Men’s 490 Challenge, brought the support of Black men to the women’s actions. During Men’s Month, organizations and businesses garnered at least $125,000 to test the rape kits.
In just 18 months, Trent’s efforts yielded over $450,000. The final piece of the puzzle came through Law & Order: SVU actress Mariska Hargitay. Her documentary, “I Am Evidence,” shed additional light on the issue when it appeared on HBO in 2018.
Because Kym Worthy and Kim Trent refused to back down, all 11,314 rape kits were tested, but their impact reached further. The Sexual Assault Kit Evidence Submission Act – requiring rape kits to be tested within four months of being collected – was signed into law in Michigan in 2014 as the women worked furiously to test the backlog of kits. “This is not going to happen again,” Trent says. Worthy also worked with UPS to develop a tracking system to code and scan each kit in every process stage. The victim can track her kit as it moves through the system.
The years that Worthy and Trent poured into empowering women to bring justice to their sisters were often frustrating and disappointing. However, their courageous commitment echoed throughout Detroit, inspiring others to join the fight to ensure the victims would see their kits tested and their cases investigated. Together, Worthy, Trent, and the people of Detroit shifted culture so victims wouldn’t be pushed aside again. “We continue to fight, continue to work,” Worthy said. “Someone said it’s like turning around an ocean liner, you can turn it, but it takes a long time.”