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Kym Worthy

County Prosecutor

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(David Kidd)

Back in 2009, Wayne County, Mich., Prosecutor Kym Worthy got word of a shocking discovery. Collecting dust in an old Detroit police storage facility were thousands of rape kits containing untested DNA evidence submitted by victims of sexual assault. The kits -- which ultimately numbered more than 11,000 -- each represented a case that had not been brought to justice. “I immediately started thinking of all the women who reported rapes to law enforcement,” Worthy says, “and how their lives were sitting on shelves on hold.” 

Worthy set about clearing the backlog, but she soon learned there was no easy way forward. Other large cities were unearthing their own backlogs of untested rape kits, but no blueprint for addressing the problem existed. With funding from the state and federal governments, her office developed new protocols and procedures to begin investigating the cases, many of which had gone ignored for decades. 

Approximately 10,000 of the Detroit kits have now been tested, yielding 549 suspected serial offenders and 25 convictions. Staffing cuts have accompanied the increased workload, so Worthy has aggressively lobbied a variety of sources for funding. Earlier this fall, she partnered with a foundation on a fundraising campaign to pay for testing of the remaining kits.

In addition to addressing the backlog, Worthy has worked to make sure these kits never again go unnoticed. Nurses, police and lab technicians now monitor the progress of rape kits throughout the chain of custody using an innovative tracking system her office implemented with help from UPS. Worthy also successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill setting time limits for kits to be submitted for lab testing and analyzed for forensic evidence. Her efforts have become a model for other cities struggling to resolve their own cache of untested kits.

Worthy, who began her career in the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, returned in 2004 to become its first female and first African-American top prosecutor. She’s earned a reputation as a tough attorney. But more than merely being tough, she knows when to be a strong force at the right times, says Wayne County Commissioner Ilona Varga.

One such time came in 2008, when Worthy’s office was investigating former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his chief of staff for misdeeds in office. Worthy says she received calls from government officials and community leaders pleading with her to drop the case against the then-popular mayor. But she never let down, instead following the evidence that led to Kilpatrick’s eventual conviction. “She didn’t blink an eye, she just did it,” Varga says. “She doesn’t do things because they’re popular, but because they’re the right things to do.”

-- By Mike Maciag

Read the rest of the 2015 Public Officials of the Year profiles.

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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