US rape victim leads project to catch predators

Updated: 2011-06-03 13:41
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WEST SAYVILLE, New York - Natasha Alexenko wants more rapists in prison.

A sexual assault survivor who waited 15 years to see her assailant brought to justice, Alexenko - who is featured in an upcoming HBO documentary on sex crime prosecutions - insists authorities often have the evidence to convict predators, but it goes untested for years. It happened to her.

The Long Island woman is the founder of and spokeswoman for the new Natasha's Justice Project, which seeks to advocate for rape victims and erase a nationwide backlog of untested sexual assault kits, also known as rape kits. The backlog could be in the tens of thousands, according to some estimates.

"You'd be surprised how many people are not aware of the fact that an individual is sexually assaulted, we have the DNA evidence, and yet the kit sits on a shelf going absolutely nowhere," said Alexenko, 38, who recently resigned as head of the Long Island Maritime Museum to support the foundation.

The documentary, "Sex Crimes Unit," premieres June 20 on HBO. It focuses on the sex crimes prosecutors in the Manhattan district attorney's office, often credited with pioneering aggressive techniques in convicting sexual predators, including clearing its backlog of 17,000 untested rape kits in New York City.

Although The Associated Press normally does not identify sexual assault victims, Alexenko is willingly coming forward to lift the stigma associated with sex crimes.

Alexenko was a 19-year-old college student from Ontario when she was raped and sodomized at gunpoint in the hallway of her Manhattan apartment building in 1993. She immediately reported the assault to police and went to a hospital, where authorities collected physical evidence, including DNA samples.

But Alexenko's rape kit sat on a shelf in an evidence room for nearly a decade. Only months before the 10-year statute of limitations was to expire, New York City prosecutors seeking to clear its backlog of rape kits had the evidence analyzed.

A spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney's office said its backlog grew because evidence amassed at a faster rate than the time-consuming lab analysis could be completed. New York City no longer has a backlog, officials said

With no suspect in custody in Alexenko's case, prosecutors employed an innovative legal strategy and indicted the DNA sample belonging to the unknown perpetrator, a so-called "John Doe indictment," which essentially stopped the clock on the statute of limitations.

In 2007, authorities arrested a suspect who was eventually convicted in Alexenko's sexual assault; he becomes eligible for parole in 2057. Alexenko, who testified at the trial, said afterward that she felt an obligation to help other victims.

"I think with all the years I had to heal, it no longer becomes a matter of an eye for an eye, or revenge, it becomes something that's more than that. And that is keeping this person from hurting anyone ever again," she said.

Alexenko said that when a rape kit is tested, the forensic evidence is placed in a national database, where it can often be matched to suspects, leading to arrests and convictions.

A May report by the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Justice Department, said the exact number of unanalyzed sex assault kits nationally is not known, in part because of an "antiquated process" of reporting in many jurisdictions.

An NIJ survey found that 43 percent of law enforcement agencies lack a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence. It also found that in 18 percent of unsolved sexual assault cases between 2002 and 2007, forensic evidence was collected but never submitted for analysis.

The NIJ said its survey did not reveal how many untested kits would have benefited from analysis.

Sarah Tofte, director of advocacy and policy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a rape victims advocacy group founded by actress Mariska Hargitay of "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," cited a 2006 Justice Department report estimating a nationwide backlog of 180,000 untested rape kits. Tofte said she suspects that is low because it relies largely on voluntary reports from law-enforcement agencies.

Tofte and others said rape kits can go untested for several reasons, including the cost of DNA analysis, which ranges from $800 to $1,500 per kit. She also noted that when the victim quickly identifies the alleged assailant as someone she knows, police sometimes do not send the kits for testing.

Dr. Lawrence Kobilinsky, chairman of the Department of Sciences at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said other factors include a lack of trained personnel and lab space, but added there is no excuse for not testing.

"A crime is being committed while that kit sits there," he said.

In the documentary's closing sequence, Alexenko returns to the apartment building where she was brutalized in 1993, triumphant and confident.

"I feel genuinely fortunate that my case came full circle against all odds," Alexenko said. "So I feel like it's my duty to go out there and make certain I can help other individuals who are going through a similar situation."