With $2 million in combined state and local funding — and the possibility of up to another $1 million — Baltimore County officials are aiming to test forensic evidence in more than 1,400 rape and sexual-assault “cold cases” by the end of next year.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. and law enforcement authorities announced Wednesday they’ve received a $1.5 million grant from Gov. Wes Moore’s Office of Crime Prevention, Youth and Victim Services, and are putting up to $500,000 of county money to expedite testing of forensic evidence collected on microscope slides, which have been collected and retained since the 1970s by the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

The county also expects to receive up to $500,000 in a grant from the private, Baltimore-based Hackerman Foundation, and is considering adding up to $500,000 in American Rescue Plan dollars to supplement the grants, the county’s press office said.

And a state law passed earlier this year also enables county law enforcement to collect the DNA slides absent a subpoena, which officials said hindered their ability to resolve sexual-assault and rape cold cases.

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“Every resident of Baltimore County deserves to feel safe in their community,” Olszewski said Wednesday. “Especially in the case of sexual-assault.”

The county says it has revised an agreement with forensic labs contractor Bode Technology to accept and test forensic evidence slides, previously used to collect bodily fluids like semen during medical examinations of sexual-assault or rape survivors at GBMC, in higher volumes.

“This project will result in testing all of the remaining approximately 1,400 cases by the end of 2024 — years ahead of when previously thought possible,” a county news release said.

Bolstering resources to test sexual-assault forensic evidence can help authorities close unresolved cases of rape and sexual assault even years later. In August, county police used decades-old forensic samples held by GBMC to arrest a 70-year-old Parkville man, who is charged with first-degree rape in cases involving five women in the 1970s and 1980s.

In a news release, Baltimore County’s State’s Attorney Scott Shellenberger said such forensic evidence has been used to obtain convictions in at least 49 sexual-assault cases. The public-private funding announced Wednesday will be used to process untested forensic slides the police department says were collected by GBMC between 1977 and 1997. In the early 1990s, GBMC formed its Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence, or SAFE, program, and has retained the slide evidence of more than 2,000 sex-assault-related crimes since the 1970s.

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“Our hope is the individuals revealed by testing will be proven responsible for the crimes for which they are charged, using evidence collected from the GBMC Slide Project,” Baltimore County Police Chief Robert McCullough said.

Baltimore County is currently working to transfer “all remaining cases and slides” from GBMC to the police department, “which will further expedite the county’s ability to efficiently log and test samples,” according to a news release.

McCullough assigned Capt. Brian Edwards, who formerly led the police department’s special victims unit, to lead the team coordinating the transfer of evidence collected for more than 1,400 cases.

In an interview, Edwards said that getting the slides from GBMC is just one step in the process of obtaining justice for sexual-assault and rape survivors.

Police then have to investigate, and prosecutors must decide whether to bring charges.

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Asked whether the goal of the Baltimore County State’s Attorney’s Office was to use forensic slides to open more cases and win more convictions against alleged perpetrators of rape and sexual-assault — a longstanding problem for the office, which infrequently chooses to prosecute such cases and tends not to obtain convictions in cases of first-degree rape — Deputy State’s Attorney John Cox said “the goal is obviously” to obtain “justice for victims of sexual assault.”

When the office “can prosecute them [sexual-assault and rape cases], that is certainly the goal,” Cox said.

Funding follows 2019 review that county authorities rarely tested DNA evidence in sexual-assault, rape cases

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A 2019 review by a county task force, formed by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. to investigate county authorities’ mishandling of sexual-assault cases, found the police department rarely completed testing Sexual Assault Forensic Examination, or SAFE, kits. Police and prosecutors historically have only collected SAFE kit evidence to be used in cases already opened, rather than to open new cases.

Unlike forensic evidence slides, SAFE kits also include DNA collected from clothing and other sources related to sexual-assault or rape survivors and their assailants.

Since the task force’s review, Olszewski’s administration says it has worked with state and local partners to implement the task force’s recommendations, including using a $300,000 grant from the Hackerman Foundation in 2019 to expand the county’s capacity to test sexual-assault forensic evidence. The county says the funding was also used to establish a cold case investigations section within the police special victims unit.

Between 2015 and 2018, county authorities had amassed hundreds of SAFE kit evidence that had gone untested, according to records obtained by The Baltimore Banner. Since 2018, county police and contracted forensic analysts are meant to process that evidence 30 days after receiving it.

That change occurred after the county police department received funding from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, or SAKI, in efforts to close sexual-assault-related cases that were more than 3 years old. SAKI recommends all SAFE kits be processed rather than only collecting evidence for cases against people charged with sex offenses.

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Through legislation sponsored by state Sen. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County representative, and passed by the General Assembly this year, Baltimore County law enforcement no longer must subpoena DNA slides only when authorities are pursuing charges in a given sexual-assault or rape case.

Baltimore County authorities’ mishandling of investigations and deficient prosecutions of rape and sexual-assault crimes have been spotlighted for years by media outlets like BuzzFeed News and The Baltimore Sun. In March, a Baltimore Banner investigation found county officials were citing a misleading number of rape cases during public messaging about violent crime in the county. That’s because the Police Department left sodomy offenses, which have been defined as rape in federal criminal statutes since 2013, out of the county’s end-of-year crime statistics provided to reporters since at least 2021.

The county executive’s office pledged to include all rape cases when discussing violent crime after The Banner’s reporting.

Sheryl Goldstein, former vice president of the Abell Foundation who chaired the county sexual assault investigations task force in 2019, said in an interview the funding was “definitely a significant step forward” in resolving some issues the task force found during its review more than four years ago.

“It is incredibly challenging and complicated to get everybody working together — which is what you need to do,” Goldstein said, noting the more than a dozen elected local and state officials, law enforcement officers and sexual-assault survivor advocates that flanked Olszewski during Wednesday’s press conference.

The Baltimore County Council must still vote to accept the $1.5 million state grant, which it is expected to do.

In a news release, Baltimore County listed resources for sexual-assault and rape survivors. The list includes:

Taylor.DeVille@thebaltimorebanner.com