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Into the Light: Bringing Perpetrators to Justice in Cold Case Sexual Assaults

Award Information

Award #
Funding Category
Competitive Discretionary
Congressional District
Funding First Awarded
Total funding (to date)

Description of original award (Fiscal Year 2022, $1,500,000)

Tucson is a southern Arizona city with a population of more than half a million people, located just 60 miles north of the Mexico border. The Tucson Police Department (TPD) is responsible for protecting and serving the residents of Tucson, and is the largest law enforcement agency in southern Arizona. In 2019, the TPD eliminated its backlog of 1,990 Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs) with the assistance of the District Attorney’s of New York (DANY) grant, resulting in the discovery of DNA in 839 cases, which identified 434 suspects from Combined DNA Index (CODIS) hits.   

In collaboration with the Pima County Attorney’s Office (PCAO) with the assistance from the DANY and Sex Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grants, TPD reviewed those DNA hits, performed 173 victim notifications, conducted 87 follow-up investigations, and advanced 30 cases for prosecution. Under the SAKI grant, TPD also performed secondary testing on 268 eligible cases that did not yield DNA through initial STR testing. That testing has yielded 63 CODIS-eligible DNA profiles and 14 suspect matches to date, with more results anticipated to be returned. While more than 45 percent of yielded DNA profiles have matched to suspects, 443 cases with unidentified suspect DNA remain. Therefore, TPD seeks to apply advanced DNA methodologies such as familial DNA searches, forensic genealogy searches, or phenotyping/ancestral analysis to identity and apprehend offenders these unknown offenders. 

TPD is underfunded and understaffed with an Adult Sexual Assault Unit comprised of only one sergeant, five active detectives, one cold case detective, and two grant-funded cold case detectives whose funding ends this fiscal year. These detectives can barely keep up with the nearly 600 new sexual assault cases in the city annually, which only feeds into a large and growing cold case log. This understaffing exists because Tucson’s poverty levels significantly exceed national averages, affecting local tax revenue and thus law enforcement funding. 

The TPD project addresses these needs in three ways: 1) by maintaining a thorough inventory of cold case SAKs and evidence, reviewing and prioritizing cases for advanced testing, applying advanced testing on those that require it, and conducting follow-up investigations when possible; 2) by maintaining multidisciplinary working group relationships to ensure swift testing, investigation, and prosecution of sexual assault cases and prevent future backlogging; and 3) by designating a single Site Coordinator with the authority to coordinate agencies, analyze systems, and advocate needed changes across agencies. 

The TPD timeline includes review, inventory, evaluation, prioritization and testing of all cold case evidence and onboarding the multidisciplinary workgroup (Year 1); resourcing this effort with three Cold Case Detectives and one new Cold Case Administrative Support Officer (Year 1); and investigating and advancing for prosecution cold cases, prioritizing those with statutes of limitations (Years 1-3).  

Key partners under this project include the PCAO, Arizona Department of Public Safety, Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault, and PCAO Victim Services Division, among others.

Date Created: September 28, 2022