The National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) has played an essential role in obtaining justice for victims of sexual assault nationwide. During this episode of the Justice Today podcast, hear how SAKI funding helped the state of Georgia process a backlog of sexual assault kits, which led to the identification and conviction of a serial rapist who had lived in plain sight for over a decade, preying on vulnerable women.
Also read the corresponding blog post.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Welcome to Justice Today, the official podcast of the Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs, otherwise known as OJP. We shine a light on cutting-edge research and practices and offer an in-depth look at what we're doing to meet our time's most significant public safety challenges. Join us as we explore how funding, science, and technology help us achieve strong communities. I'm your host, Karen Friedman. I'm the Director of Criminal Justice Innovation, Development, and Engagement at OJP's Bureau of Justice Assistance, otherwise known as BJA.
In 2004, a series of rapes began in Albany, Georgia, when a then 31-year-old coerced a 19-year-old into his vehicle and drove to a secluded area where he physically attacked and sexually assaulted her. This began a 13-year violent spree of sexual assaults on vulnerable victims in Dougherty County, Georgia.
In 2016, a new law in Georgia required sexual assault kits to be sent to a crime lab. Approximately 3,000 kits were submitted and uploaded into a national DNA database for criminal investigations, otherwise known as CODIS. And four DNA profiles matched to six other victims, identifying Duane Jabaar Ballard, as a potential serial rapist.
With this new information, the Georgia SAKI Task Force led the investigation and prosecution of Duane Ballard. In 2022, Ballard was convicted on six counts of rape, one count of attempted rape, seven counts of aggravated assault, one count of child molestation, and one count of attempted aggravated sodomy. Duane Ballard was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
These convictions would not have been possible without the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, otherwise known as SAKI. SAKI provides funding through a competitive grant program to support the jurisdictional reform of approaches to sexual assault cases resulting from evidence found in sexual assault kits that have never been submitted to a crime laboratory. SAKI is administered by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, BJA, and aims to create a coordinated community response that ensures just resolution to sexual assault cases through:
- One, a comprehensive and victim-centered approach.
- Two, jurisdictional capacity building to prevent high numbers of un-submitted sexual assault kits in the future.
- And three, supporting the investigation and prosecution of cases for which sexual assault kits were previously unsupported.
SAKI cites both currently and previously funded, represent approximately 58% of the United States' population.
We are so pleased today to have with us, Amy Hutsell, who is the Program Director for the Sexual Assault, Child Abuse, and Human Trafficking Unit, Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. Amy is here to tell us about the process of obtaining justice for the victims of this serial rapist and how communities can better support victims of sexual assaults. Amy, welcome. Thank you so much for being with us here today.
AMY HUTSELL: Hello. Thank you so much. First, let me just start off by saying it's a real pleasure to be here. It has been one of probably the highlights of my career and a great privilege to work with BJA and Dr. Angela Williamson and the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Project. So, it's a privilege for me to be here and talk to you about probably one of my favorite projects that I have and one of my favorite things to talk about. So thank you for having me.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Oh, thank you. It's our pleasure. So, now that I gave our audience a little bit of background about the SAKI program, let's look about at how Georgia, which I know that you are very familiar with, got started with their backlog.
AMY HUTSELL: So as you mentioned, we passed Senate Bill 304 back in 2016 to address our sexual assault kit backlog. This law was passed in response to an article at that time that had come out in 2015 in the Atlanta Journal Constitution that documented approximately 1,500 sexual assault kits that were being stored at that time at Grady Hospital, which is our level one trauma center and public hospital in the city of Atlanta.
Senate Bill 304 was passed, and it focused on addressing the backlog that existed currently in the state or at that time in the state, rather. And it also addressed the prevention of future backlogs.
We subsequently received funding to test the sexual assault kits that had come in from our backlog at that time from the District Attorney's office in New York. At that time, we call that the Danny Grant. The district attorney in New York was providing funding to jurisdictions across the country to address their backlog, similarly to how Manhattan had been able to address theirs. So, we knew at that time to comprehensively address our problem we were going to need help with resources to investigate, prosecute, and provide advocacy in the cases that would be reopened or that potentially were being opened for the first time as a result of the sexual assault kit testing.
So that's where SAKI came to the rescue, so to speak. We applied for funding to BJA and we were able to create a statewide project. So, our task force includes investigators from the metro Atlanta area, but because we're statewide, we also include a statewide investigator, a statewide prosecutor, and a statewide victim advocate. And that's how we were able to come to assist in Albany, Georgia.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Awesome. So, we hear now that SAKI is making progress, which is great. And you're making progress with the backlog. So, let's talk about specifically the case in Dougherty County. Can you kind of walk us through that timeline?
AMY HUTSELL: Sure. So you had mentioned earlier, Karen, that Duane Ballard's sexual assault spree began in 2004. He was targeting women who typically were walking along the street or down the sidewalk. He would offer them a ride. In some cases, the victim would accept the ride, and in others they were forced into the vehicle by Duane Ballard.
Typically, once he had them in his car, he would initially follow whatever the suggested route was wherever they said they were going, but then change direction and drive to a secluded area where he would threaten the victim with a box cutter or similar knife and sexually assault them.
We know of five victims between 2004 and 2012. All of those victims reported the sexual assault and received a forensic medical exam.
In Georgia, we're a little bit unique in that we prioritize our onsite forensic medical program. So, as opposed to victims receiving medical exams in the hospital, many times in Georgia, victim will actually receive a forensic medical exam on site within a Sexual Assault Center. This is a more private, and confidential, and timely response we feel than in the hospital. And so, those victims likely received their sexual assault exams, our forensic medical exams at the local Sexual Assault Center that's called the Lily Pad in Albany, Georgia. We know that they had those exams. We know that DNA was collected and that DNA profiles were developed as a result of that. But there's little indication that there was ongoing or thorough investigations taking place in those cases. There was no contact with victims, for example.
Then there was a CODIS hit in 2008. You mentioned CODIS, our national DNA database. And we did not find that that particular CODIS hit was followed up on by the investigating agency. So when Senate Bill 304 passed in 2016, four of the sexual assault kits from those investigations came into the crime lab and all of those return matches to Duane Ballard.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Wow.
AMY HUTSELL: And then the hits kept coming, so to speak, so I mentioned that Senate Bill 304 addressed future backlogs as well. Part of that legislation mandated that our sexual assault kits be submitted to the crime lab within 30 days. So, there were kits that came in after that legislation was passed as well, because Duane Ballard, at that time, was still committing sexual assaults in the area. So the CODIS hits kept coming in.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Wow, wow, wow. So, did you try to track him down? Like, what happened once those hits came in?
AMY HUTSELL: So, we were receiving those kits as part—we were receiving information from the crime lab at that time as part of our project. So, the fact that there were so many CODIS hits really was on our radar. We were fortunate because we were working in the city of Albany under another project. We had also received funding from the Office of Violence Against Women to create what we call the Georgia SART Project or Sexual Assault Response Team Project.
So, OVW has a grant that they call the Improving Criminal Justice Responses to various interpersonal crimes against women. And that funded our project that was providing training and technical assistance to Sexual Assault Response Teams in Georgia's 50 judicial circuits and 159 counties. So, our project was really trying to promote consistency and a trauma-informed and victim-centered multidisciplinary response to sexual assault. And you can imagine with 159 counties how challenging it is to be consistent and—right, in how we're responding.
So, we had been working in Albany with their Sexual Assault Response Team and we had those contacts in place. So that kind of gave us a little bit of a foot in the door, so to speak, to be able to provide assistance in the Duane Ballard cases as well. So, the Sexual Assault Center, the Lily Pad down in Albany, was already meeting with their SART on the Ballard cases. They were very frustrated with the lack of responses. The entire SART was frustrated with the lack of resources to respond to the cases. So it really was a perfect fit for us to be able to come in as the Georgia's SAKI Task Force and be able to provide assistance.
So, we started with locating the victims, our investigator, and then Crispin Henry, said at that time, "I don't quit. Every victim can be found." And so I think that really showed the local investigators, and prosecutors, and victim advocates the value and what we could bring to the table. And ultimately, the District Attorney invited us to assist more formally on the case. And then he would at one point allow our prosecutor to be sworn in and take the lead on the prosecution, because he was dealing with a pretty severe understaffing in the District Attorney's office down there in Dougherty County.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Got you. Now, so I understand that when you finally tracked down Mr. Ballard, he was actually incarcerated, is that correct?
AMY HUTSELL: Yes. He was actually incarcerated because of one of the cases. So, he got arrested in 2017, I believe, as a result of some of the sexual assault kit testing. And he had been identified and he had been awaiting trial in Dougherty County Jail. Correct.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Okay. So was he going to be released? What I—because I understand you were kind of working against the clock to make sure he wasn't released.
AMY HUTSELL: Yes. So we were providing the investigation and prosecution to make sure that that prosecution move forward and that he was not released from jail. Correct.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Okay. So, when this case was finally brought to trial, as you said, many of the victims had moved away. And like you said, they were hard to find. So, were they willing to come back to Georgia for trial? How did that work?
AMY HUTSELL: Yes. So, many of them did come back. Some of them were still in the area. Many of them were still in the area as well. We had a mix of some that were out of state and some that had remained in the area.
We're fortunate with the Georgia SAKI Task Force because we have an incredible task force coordinator and a big team of advocates as well. Jay Eisner is our task force coordinator and he's a retired captain from the DeKalb County Police Department and a former commander of a Special Victims Unit. So, Jay's a cop and he can really understand that world, but he's also—we tease him because he's also got such a heart for victims.
The first time I met Jay, I was speaking at a conference, and he was in the audience, and he wasn't really dressed like a cop. And because of the questions he was asking me, I thought he was a victim advocate. So here you have the Commander of the Special Victims Unit that is so victim-centered that my initial reaction with him led me to believe that he was actually a victim advocate. So, Jay, and together with our victim advocates and investigators, really worked tirelessly to make sure that all of our victims felt supported and encouraged.
Many of them were dealing with life circumstances that could've influenced their ability to participate in the investigation and prosecution. One of our victims from out of state was suffering from some mental health issues. Another was in a domestic violence situation. And her work with Jay and Lee Holbrook, who is our incredible victim advocate assigned to the task force, resulted not only in that victim who was in a domestic violence situation returning to Georgia to testify, but also her escape with her three children from that situation.
At trial, it took the entire team, which included Jay, advocates, our investigators, local investigators, local advocates, state-level victim witness advocates to really make sure it all came together and that those victims were there and felt supported to be able to take the stand and walk into a courtroom where Duane Ballard was standing trial.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: All right. Exceptionally difficult, really. I mean, it's difficult for victims in any case to come to trial and speak about their experience in a courtroom. But for a sexual assault victim, it's that much more difficult. So, that's exceptional.
AMY HUTSELL: Absolutely.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's great. So, I know that SAKI's been so valuable in clearing backlogs and getting convictions, which is wonderful. But we know even with a conviction, the work of supporting victims does not stop just because the perpetrator goes to jail. The effects of that crime lingers for a lifetime. In your experience, how can practitioners nationwide support victims?
AMY HUTSELL: Well, that's an incredible question, Karen, and that would take an entire another podcast to really delve into, because to your point, the effects of sexual assault and the trauma that that victim experienced can last a lifetime. We saw that in our case in Albany, the Duane Ballard case.
And so, to begin with, you have to recognize the problem, right? You have to as a community and as responders within the Sexual Assault Response Team recognize that it takes a collaborative approach. It takes a trauma-informed and victim-centered approach. I spoke previously about Sexual Assault Response Teams, those different disciplines that have to work together in a community, law enforcement, prosecutors, victim advocates, social workers, et cetera, have different roles, and they played a different part in that response. It takes a lot of work and collaboration and understanding those roles, staying in your lane, to really be able to come together to comprehensively address the problem of sexual assault within a community.
So, I would say in a nutshell, practitioners need to recognize the value of that collaboration. They need to form very strong collaborations with their partners within communities. They need to have patience with one another. There are times that differences of opinion may arise about a particular case. But the strength of the relationships that can be formed as a result of strong Sexual Assault Response Team development really results in better services for victims, higher prosecution rates, and ultimately allows for a smoother path for victims and their journey towards healing.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: So, in addition to being able to close rape cases, you've also been able to use SAKI funds to help with other sexually-motivated crimes. Could you talk a little bit about that?
AMY HUTSELL: Yes. So, we were able to expand the focus of our project and our task force to include sexually-motivated homicides. Much of that actually resulted from our collaborative work with Dr. Williamson at BJA and the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit on the Samuel Little cases.
Many of your listeners are probably familiar with the name Samuel Little. He's been confirmed by the FBI to be our nation's most prolific serial killer. He killed over 90 women over a period of over 30 years.
And so, as he was confessing, and Dr. Williamson was working on those cases and confessions with Jim Holland, who was the Texas Ranger that was really interviewing Little and getting him to confess. They would send me his confessions. And so, it was my job to try to match those confessions with cold cases in Georgia. And so, that really—because I was trying to take his confessions and find the crime in kind of a reverse homicide investigation, to find the crime that fit the confession as opposed the other way around. I really learned that there were many unsolved cold cases that were sexually-motivated homicides in Georgia. And so, that began our focus on sexually-motivated homicides as well.
We ended up adding a criminal profiler to our task force, and we began through the help of and assistance of BJA and SAKI to be able to provide the funding necessary for forensic genetic genealogy assistance in many of those cases. So, as of right now, we have several that are open that we're working on. We were just able to identify through forensic genetic genealogy, a Jane Doe that was a victim of Samuel Little in Macon, Georgia. She had gone missing in 1977 and had remained unidentified for a period of over 40 years. And we used forensic genetic genealogy to be able to finally identify her and notify her family, unfortunately, that she was deceased and that she had been killed by Samuel Little.
So, the SAKI project has really encouraged the innovative uses of techniques such as forensic genetic genealogy. They're providing incredible resources and education in forensic genetic genealogy. And so we were kind of right there along and following their lead and making sure that we're providing those same resources in Georgia statewide as well.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: That's wonderful. It must be so rewarding for you, what you do. And I just want to thank you so much for the work you're doing to help bring justice for victims of sexual assault. And I want to thank you so much for joining me today. We are so happy that you have joined us on Justice Today. And, again, thank you for being here and thank you for all the wonderful work that you're doing.
AMY HUTSELL: Well, thank you, Karen. And thank you to BJA, also. We could not do this work without the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Department of Justice. So, it's the least I can do and I'm happy to join you today and continue a wonderful partnership. Thank you so much.
KAREN FRIEDMAN: Thank you.
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