New hope for rape victims High-tech equipment, specially trained professionals and DNA tests have revolutionized sex-crime prosecution - The Buffalo News

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New hope for rape victims
High-tech equipment, specially trained professionals and DNA tests have revolutionized sex-crime prosecution

She was a 70-year-old great-grandmother who had just been raped by a knife-wielding intruder in her own home.

And as detectives at the emergency room of Buffalo General Hospital questioned her, she was struck by an uneasy feeling that the police may not believe her.

"They acted like I was just a senile old lady," recounted the rape survivor. The Buffalo News does not identify sexual assault victims.

But the Buffalo woman did not have to stand alone on her word, like so many victims of sex crimes have in the past.

An examination with a colposcope -- a kind of microscope that can take digital images as well as video -- that was conducted by a registered nurse specially trained to handle sexual assault patients revealed tiny tears on the woman's body.

They were the telltale signs of a brutal, forced attack.

"It proved I was raped," she said of the colposcope.

Part "CSI" and part "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," the men and women who investigate and prosecute sex crimes in Erie County have developed a new arsenal of high-tech tools over the last few years, used to find the proof that gives credibility to victims and puts rapists behind bars.

Colposcopes reveal tiny abrasions invisible to the naked eye.

Drug tests added to the standard "rape kit" can show evidence that a "date rape drug" was used.

Even DNA tests, which have revolutionized sex crime investigation, continue to get more specialized.

And then there's the army of highly helping the victims: nurses with specific training in collecting evidence from sex assault patients' bodies, advocates for rape victims who offer emotional support and forensic scientists and toxicologists who doggedly search for evidence.

All help in providing hard evidence that gives the detectives and prosecutors a solid case to take to court.

"Once we have this level of medical and DNA evidence, it's a done deal," explained Rosanne E. Johnson, chief of the Sexual Assault Bureau of the Erie County District Attorney's Office.

District Attorney Frank J. Clark remembers the days of prosecuting rape based almost solely on circumstantial evidence.

Even a decade ago, many victims were loath to report what had happened to them, and of those who did, the chance of seeing their attackers end up behind bars was no better than one in three, Clark said.

"I go back 30 years, and it always was the worst," Clark said of cases that involved sexual assault. "So often, it was 'he says, she says' with precious little corroborating evidence."

That was then. In 2004, the conviction rate for grand jury-indicted cases in the county was 93 percent, including pleas and verdicts, Johnson said. About another 50 were pleaded out before grand juries ever saw them.

"When we have the evidence in a case, it leaves the offender with very little alternative," said Lt. David Mann, who is in charge of the Buffalo Police Department's Sex Offense Section. "They really are left with no opportunity to lie about it."

DNA testing has been a revolutionary forensic tool for police and prosecutors in rape cases.

"It allowed us to conclusively ID the assailant on a sexual assault," said Dr. John Simich, assistant director of Erie County Central Police Services' forensic laboratory, which logged 1,200 samples taken from area crime scenes over the last six years into a database.

And the sophistication of DNA tests continues to improve.

"It never ceases to amaze us," said Simich, about the tiny traces of genetic material that can be used to identify a suspect.

But sometimes, investigators can't find any DNA. That's where the colposcope is used.

Currently, there are four county hospitals equipped with colposcopes designated for emergency room exams of sex assault patients, the last one unveiled this month at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

They've already helped convict two men on sex assault charges. In one case, Brian Hawkes, 41, of Buffalo was sentenced to 75 years to life for rape and attempted rape. In the rape, the assailant hadn't left any DNA on the victim, a 21-year-old college student, but the colposcope showed bruising and a tear consistent with a forced attack, Johnson said.

The use of colposcopes in Erie County can be traced back to the Lee Gross Anthone Child Advocacy Center, a program of Child & Adolescent Treatment Services, which has been using a colposcope for exams on children suspected of having been sexually abused since 1994.

"It has a bright light and it magnifies, about 10 to 12 times [greater]," explained Debbie Phillips, a registered nurse with Women and Children's Hospital who performs the exams at the center. "And it's very noninvasive."

The colposcope exams are also taped, which means they can be shown in court.

In addition to colposcopes, Erie County added another component to the standard emergency room rape exam to aid in cases where a date-rape drug was used.

But the evidence and photos are useless unless they're gathered and stored carefully. A recent study of rape kits processed at the Erie County forensic lab found that only 36 percent are handled correctly.

This is where a team of about 30 nurses scattered across the county become a critical part of the prosecution. They are called Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE nurses, and they are trained to collect evidence properly. The program here started in mid-2003 and is headed by Jeanine F. Schnell, an emergency room nurse at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital.

While treating a rape patient, the nurse is not only giving medical aid, but also collecting evidence. The nurses can also be called to court to testify, which means it's critical for them to be meticulous and stay as neutral as possible.

"If I'm going to court for her, the best thing I can do for her is not be her buddy," Schnell said. "I'm not on someone's side. I just want fo find the facts."

Johnson said the testimony of the SANE nurses is invaluable.

"They essentially become an eye witness to the fact of the assault," she said.

Working side by side with the nurses are victim advocates dispatched to the emergency room by the nonprofit Crisis Services. The advocates give support and a clean change of clothes, and explain the legal process and all the services available to the victims.

"We're there to support their emotional well-being," said Jessica Pirro, the advocate program coordinator.

For the Buffalo great-grandmother, going to the hospital for the rape kit meant not only getting proof of her rape and getting the help of a victim advocate, but also having a chance to stop being afraid. Her assailant remains at large.

"I can't live in my house," she said. "When it gets dark, I listen for every noise in my house. I barely sleep. I'm so afraid he might come back . . . I want people to know and be on the lookout for this person. I wouldn't like this to happen to anyone else."

e-mail: mbecker@buffnews.com

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