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New microscope aids legal fight in rapes

The tears and abrasions can be tiny, sometimes no more than 2 millimeters.

But thanks to new technology available at four local hospitals, these minuscule wounds on victims of sexual assault are the telltale signs that Erie County prosecutors can now show a jury to take rape cases beyond matters of "he said, she said."

Highly specialized digital microscope called colposcopes -- designed specifically for microscopic-level pelvic exams on sexual assault victims -- are slowly becoming part of the standard "rape kit" at local emergency rooms.

"We're able to see things we were never able to see before," said Jeanine F. Schnell, an emergency room nurse at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital, who coordinates for the county's cadre of emergency room nurses with specialized training in handling patients who were raped.

Friday morning, the Amherst hospital unveiled its new XamStation Pro, becoming the fourth hospital in Erie County to be equipped with the cutting-edge digital machines. Erie County Medical Center, Buffalo General and Women and Children's Hospital also have colposcopes.

Assemblyman Jim Hayes, R-Amherst, helped the hospital get a $10,000 grant to buy the CSI-style machine, which creates digital images that are stored and printed out as photographs or recorded as video -- all of which can be used as evidence in a sexual assault case.

Hayes pointed out a recent study of rape evidence processed by the Erie County crime lab that found that only 36 percent of the exams were performed correctly.

Colposcope technology, Hayes said, should help nurses better gather evidence, making convictions more likely and spare the victims of the second trauma of seeing their attackers acquitted for lack of evidence.

"They will not be victimized twice," Hayes said.

Rosanne Johnson, chief of the Erie County district attorney's sexual assault bureau, said the evidence collected through colposcopes has led to two convictions and helped her persuade "a handful" of defendants to plead guilty.

"It's a huge hurdle for the defense," said Johnson, whose office saw 450 sexual assault cases last year and about 215 in the first six months of 2005.

In the past, she struggled with cases that relied solely on the victim's word against the attacker's -- even when DNA was evidence was collected, Johnson said. Defense attorneys often would write off the DNA as traces of nothing more than a consensual encounter.

But the images of small injuries taken by a colposcope "maximizes our potential for conviction," she said. "It puts you on much stronger legal ground."

Millard Fillmore Suburban has a team of five nurses, including Schnell, who are already making good use of the new technology. Mary Hanley, a registered nurse with 20 years experience who has handled "hundreds" of rape cases, said she recently used the colposcope to find evidence of an assault on a woman who suspected she had been raped while passed out on drugs.

"There was a tear," Hanley recalled.

Another nurse on the team, Janeen Bass, a nine-year emergency room veteran, demonstrated how the machine works. Training the colposcope on a penny, she showed a magnified full-color image of the coin, pointing out the teensy Lincoln statue suddenly visible between the pillars of the Lincoln Memorial on the penny's tails side.

Bass, too, makes regular use of the colposcope and has found her patients are often relieved to know there's solid evidence to back up their claims.

"They're so afraid that no one believes them," she said.


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