The Sexual Assault Kit Investigation team at the Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education has experts re-thinking what was previously believed about the patterns of serial rapists—that they don’t stick with the same modus operandi. Instead, offenders in reported rape cases appear to be more opportunistic, according to senior research associate Rachel Lovell, PhD.

“Serial sex offenders frequently assault both strangers and non-strangers, and often drastically vary their modus operandi across assaults,” Lovell said. “Offenders in the sample frequently exhibited crossover offending by relationship, age and even some by gender.” Despite differences in operational definitions, experts agree that a serial sex offender is one who has committed at least two separate sexual offenses.

Hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits (SAKs), also known as rape kits, have languished, untested in evidence storage facilities nationally. There were 5,000 from 1993 through 2009 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio alone. Medical professionals use rape kits to collect and preserve evidence from a victim of sexual assault, with the goal of taking rapists off the street. The Begun Center’s research—available in a series of briefs—is based on coding police and investigative reports, DNA lab reports and criminal histories of victims and defendants.

The team’s analysis of the data has shown that, while law enforcement and the media may describe a serial rapist as fitting a specific profile, the evidence runs contrary. “We’ve all heard serial rapists referred to by what are believed to be their very specific patterns,” said Lovell. “This research shows that these offenders are more about opportunity than maintaining a method.” For example, DNA testing linked one offender in the sample to the rape of a 13-year-old girl at a party and two months later, the rape of his 3-year old son. Another offender was connected via DNA to three rapes: a female intimate partner, a female stranger, and an adult male living in a group home.

“This crossover behavior compounded with the prevalence of serial offenses emphasizes the necessity for testing all kits, not just stranger rapes, as testing a known offender’s DNA may generate leads in cases with unknown offenders,” said senior research associate Misty Luminais, PhD.

The research team, which also includes Daniel J. Flannery, PhD, Tiffany Walker, Duoduo Huang, Laura Overman, and Maggie McGuire, is working to get its findings to law enforcement agencies and prosecutors to help improve investigations and convictions.

Suggestions for law enforcement agencies based on the findings include:

  • Encouraging the collection of sexual assault kits by making the process of having a kit collected easier and more victim-centered.
  • Test the evidence on hand and test all sexual assault kits.
  • Follow up on testing the evidence with a thorough investigation and prosecution.

The SAKI team’s research appeared in Ohio and Pennsylvania media three times in February:

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