Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Rape Survivors' Waiting Game 

Wednesday, May 4 2016
Comments (1)

In the spring of 2010, 27-year-old writer and performer Heather Marlowe moved to San Francisco from Olympia, Wash. with big dreams. She’d landed a role singing in a feminist performance of The Little Mermaid and joined a bhangra dance troupe when she decided to take part in one of the city’s quintessential “performance art” experiences: Bay to Breakers.

During a party on race day — “Hetero Pride,” she would later call it — a man she didn’t know handed her a red plastic cup of beer. She drank it down, soon noticing it left her more drunk than she would have expected. That and a cab ride were her last memories before she blacked out. She woke up several hours later in a strange house in the Richmond District, in a bed with black sheets, bruised and suffering pelvic pain. Through the fog, she believed she’d been drugged and raped.

After vomiting repeatedly and gathering her wits, Marlowe did what fewer than 30 percent of sexual assault survivors do: She went to the nearest emergency room and called the police. They took her from a hospital on the west side of the city to San Francisco General, where nurses trained to collect sexual assault evidence swabbed her vagina, anus, and mouth during a four-hour examination, collecting any DNA that might identify her attacker. On her way home — still wearing an open-backed hospital gown, after the muu-muu she wore during the race was confiscated for “evidence” — police and hospital staff assured her that the DNA would be analyzed and she would get the results within 14 to 60 days.

While waiting, Marlowe Googled the name she thought her rapist had given her when they'd met. She found a picture that looked like him, but when she reported the find to the police, she says the inspector assigned to her case made an odd suggestion: Make contact with the possible suspect and flirt with him to get him to confess.

She also received some dating advice. Marlowe says the officer instructed her to go on a date with the man she believed to be her rapist, suggesting that if she didn't, SFPD would drop the case. She tried to follow that advice, but the man bailed on two scheduled meet-ups.

Marlowe began to suspect police weren't putting much effort into the investigation. Throughout 2010, she continued to call police for the results of her rape kit. Each time, she was repeatedly told to check back in a few months. Months stretched into years.

"The 14 days that it was supposed to take for my kit to be processed turned into 868 days," Marlowe told a meeting of the San Francisco Police Commission in 2013. "I got to a point where following up [and] trying to attain any information was becoming very frustrating and re-traumatizing, because I was continually being told that my kit was not a priority."

A slight woman with large brown eyes and straight, dark hair that falls past her shoulders, Marlowe studied art history and world arts and cultures at the University of California at Los Angeles. She later came to San Francisco to pursue writing and performance with local stage luminary Lisa Anne Porter and at comedian W. Kamau Bell's performance workshop.

She developed a stage play, The Haze, about being drugged and raped at Bay to Breakers and her ensuing experiences with SFPD, including a story about police taking her to the wrong hospital at one point. (Only SFGH is qualified to collect rape kits.)

"I'm like, wow, these guys really have no idea where to go or what to do," she says in the play, turning sarcastic. "And that makes a lot of sense. Because rape is so rare in our society that it's actually been years since it's happened to anyone. There isn't really any need to train our law enforcement about rape, because it never happens."


Marlowe's efforts through The Haze and her remarks at the police commission shamed San Francisco police into action. In 2014, police Chief Greg Suhr vowed all untested kits would be analyzed. He credited Marlowe for creating the pressure that allowed the SFPD to expand its crime lab staff from four people to 14.

But almost six years later, nobody has been arrested in Marlowe's rape, nor has a suspect been identified. These are both common outcomes in rape cases, as only 2 percent of rapists will serve time in prison, but San Francisco has long lagged far, far behind other jurisdictions in handling rape.

The city's rape arrest rate hovered around the 10 to 12 percent range for several years — before plummeting to 6 percent in 2014. Nationwide, the arrest rate in rapes is 21 percent, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report; in California, it's 26 percent, according to state Department of Justice records.

Marlowe eventually resorted to filing a public records request to see if her kit was even tested. Now, she believes police haven't even done that.

In January, Marlowe filed a federal lawsuit against Suhr, SFPD brass, and the police commission, alleging that her due process rights were violated and claiming her rape kit was never tested. (Because her civil case is pending, Marlowe's attorneys won't let her speak to reporters and only allowed her to provide her personal history by email.)

Marlowe was assaulted about six months before the Board of Supervisors passed legislation requiring the SFPD to comply with California's Sexual Assault Victims' DNA Bill of Rights. That law mandates that police must test any DNA evidence from a sexual assault, develop a suspect profile, and upload the information to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Combined DNA Index System — or CODIS, a national database of offender DNA — all within 14 days.

It also requires the department to make sure it preserves funding to ensure rape kits are tested in a timely fashion — before sexual assault offenders can re-offend, and before it's too late to prosecute them.

But when Marlowe spoke at a police commission meeting about her rape kit three years later, she said she suspected police were ignoring the law.

"Why would my one kit just happen to slip through the cracks?" she asked at the meeting.

It wasn't just hers. An ABC7 News investigation in 2013 revealed that the SFPD had thousands of untested kits, each containing evidence collected before the 2010 legislation passed, sitting untouched on shelves.

Even now, months after police twice claimed the older rape kits had been tested, the department is now admitting hundreds have not been fully tested — some dating as far back as 1982 — according to police department spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak.

It's well known that the vast majority of sexual assaults are never prosecuted. But on top of the abysmal chances of seeing their rapists arrested and prosecuted, sexual assault survivors in San Francisco have never enjoyed the speedy attempt at justice promised to them in the victims' "bill of rights."


A visit to a San Francisco rape crisis center inspired former Police Commissioner Jim Hammer, an attorney who used to work as a prosecutor in the District Attorney's office, to craft the rape kit mandate city legislators approved in 2010.

He came away appalled by what he heard from survivors and counselors.

Counselors "had come to tell victims, 'Don't expect a fast result. We can't even give them a date when the kit would come back,' " Hammer says. "I was floored. I was speechless. One of the victims said, 'I don't even want to do the test.' "

"That was just an absolutely horrible outcome," he says. "It's unacceptable that some victims are refusing to do the test because they couldn't be reassured it would be done in a speedy way."

Tags:

About The Author

Beth Winegarner

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Comments are closed.

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed
  1. Most Popular

Slideshows

  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"