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Fulton County struggles with rape kit backlog

District Attorney's Office said some date back to the 1980s.

FULTON COUNTY, Ga. — As Fulton County and Atlanta investigators announced they cracked a decades-old cold case, they emphasized that more could be solved, and sooner, if they continue to tackle the hundreds of backlogged rape kits from decades ago. 

The Fulton County District Attorney's Office said there are 2,400 unexamined rape kits in the Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab within the county alone. The kits date back to the 1980s and 1990s, according to attorneys. 

One kit can help solve a case.

On Tuesday, Atlanta Police detectives said they finally pinpointed a perpetrator in the 1995 rape and murder of Nacole Smith in large part because of a DNA match.

The complex case would span more than 26 years and started to warm nearly a decade later as authorities investigated another attack. Evidence from a 2004 rape would align with Smith's, suggesting they had the same attacker, investigators said.

Using genealogy and ancestry databases, detectives said a Georgia Bureau of Investigation lab was able to match the DNA profile in the unsolved rape of the victim in East Point just after Christmas in December 2021.  

Representatives with the Fulton County's District Attorney's Office said this is a testament to what investigators can accomplish.

"I'm happy that we are here today, that we have been able to gain some degree of closure for the family," Adriane Love, the deputy district attorney for the office's capital case and cold case unit said. "And this case is emblematic of how we will work going forward and how we will continue to work."

Members of the District Attorney's office said they can stop serial offenders like Smith's attacker if they keep working through the backlog.

It's been an ongoing issue in Georgia for years, with the Fulton County District Attorney's Office creating the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Task Force, known as SAKI, in 2018 to address the unexamined rape kits. In 2020, U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance granted the office another $2 million to keep the task force going through 2023.

"Our initial work has been completed with the backlog that was found at Grady Hospital that left us with approximately 169 DNA results from those sexual assault kits that our office has then gone on to investigate and hopefully prosecute many of those being serial offenders," Julianna Peterson, the deputy district attorney that oversees SAKI. "We have to keep doing the work."

SAKI's primary mission has been identifying cases from a backlog of 1,500 rape kits that were discovered at Grady Hospital in 2015. Those kits have since been tested by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and prosecutors in the DA's Office have worked cases after uncovering matches in the state's Combined DNA Index System.

Wrestling with the backlog isn't enough, Peterson said. It's keeping with the kits and fighting for answers.

"There are more Nicole Smiths, there are more Betty Browns out there. And it's absolutely imperative that the state government recognize that and go forward and test these kits," Peterson said.