An interview with Kellie Greene, a sexual assault survivor and the founder of SOAR®, Speaking Out About Rape, Inc.® -- a national awareness, education, and prevention program to empower survivors of sexual violence and enhance the public's understanding and acceptance of rape victims.
Would you tell me the story about what happened to you?
Greene: On January 18, 1994, I was doing my laundry in my building about 10:30 p.m., and when I came back to the apartment, a rapist attacked me as I walked in. He beat me badly, and then he raped me. After about 45 minutes, he left. I called the police right away. I had no doubt about reporting it because the rapist had hurt me, and that made me angry.
How well did the police respond?
Greene: I was surprised by how fast they came. When they got there, I went to the front door and actually fell to my knees because there was now someone there for me. There was a whole army of people behind them -- a team of law enforcement officers and firefighters (paramedics). But it also actually bothered me to have so many people in my apartment, where the rapist had invaded my personal space. It would have been better if just one officer had taken control and let only the necessary people into the apartment so he could assess what was going on.
Something else that happened is that when I'm in crisis, I tend to clean because it calms me down. Things had been knocked over and moved, so I started picking things up. An officer spoke to me sternly and insisted I sit down, which hurt because the rapist had hit me repeatedly all over my backside. The officer was doing his job, but it would have been better if he had just calmly asked me to stop and explained why. A victim advocate could have helped prevent this problem if there had been one there.
How was the medical response?
Greene: The police took me to the hospital right away, and I gave my statement before the forensic exam. I had to wait three hours before the medical forensic examiner arrived -- the hospital's rape team worked nine to five, so they were not there! I was amazed to see that the nurses on duty hadn't been trained on how to deal with a rape victim or with the evidence. For example, I found a pubic hair on the cup I used to urinate, and I knew it wasn't mine. The nurse started to flick it off, and I had to convince her to save it in a sterile cup. The doctor was good, though, and her questions helped me find the language to talk about the assault (which was difficult with the police because I didn't have the right language, and some of my statements may have seemed to contradict one another). But the doctor helped me articulate some important information, and my answers led her to collect the right kind of evidence.
One thing that disturbed me, though, was that as soon as they got me to the hospital that night, a hospital official walked in and asked me how I would pay for the exam -- did I have health insurance? Here I had been raped and could have been murdered, and the hospital was most concerned about their money! That was really traumatic, and again, a victim advocate could have helped prevent that trauma.
What made it possible to solve the case? In particular, how was forensic DNA involved?
Greene: Two days after the attack, I met with the detective in charge of my case. She had a suspect that the police had actually brought to my home before I went to the hospital to see if I could make an identification. But it soon became clear that he was not my rapist. So they didn't have much to go on -- they had a composite sketch, and nothing was happening. On the other hand, I was so lucky to have the female detective who was assigned to my case. We connected with one another, and she worked on it for three years straight. We would meet once a week and we kept going over details to see if I could remember anything else. I had to know who the rapist was. I didn't feel safe. It was the focus of my life -- I could hardly think about anything else.
But I started to get discouraged. Six months, then a year went by with no suspects. There were no fingerprint matches -- there were so many fingerprints, but nothing came through. It was clear that it was all going to boil down to DNA. But the police had told me no processing would take place until there was a suspect (because of funding and because there was nothing to process it against). So my rape kit just sat on the shelf. This was really frustrating to me. But the detective met with me often and kept working to find suspects in neighboring counties.
Three years after the crime, in April 1997, the detective called me and asked me to look at a photo lineup. I couldn't identify anyone, but she told me which one it was because there had been a DNA match. I was just shocked. She told me she had had a suspect in Daytona Beach, and she had the evidence from my kit tested against his DNA. It didn't match. But the evidence had been entered into the DNA databank, and then they got a cold hit. (Several years earlier, in 1995, Florida had passed a law requiring that anyone serving time for a sex offense, no matter when it occurred, would have to submit DNA to the offender database). The man who had raped me was in prison at the time for another rape. Six weeks before he raped me, he had raped another woman in another county. In that case, it took nine months to get a court order to get his DNA (even though the police had seen items from the victim's house in his house). I never received an adequate explanation of why it took them so long to arrest him. But this delay was so important because if they had arrested him that night, I probably would not have been raped.
What were the strengths and weaknesses of the law enforcement response to the crime against you?
Greene: For the most part, it was really strong. The detective was so good with me and never let my case get cold. I also called her all the time and wouldn't let her forget about me. I was always asking where we were in the investigation, and I kept watching the news and paying attention to other rapes in the area. I was a really proactive victim, and the detective was great at staying in touch with me and keeping me involved.
I started to have problems, though, after the case was solved. My detective transferred out of the sex crimes unit, and I was assigned a new detective. There was no immediate sense of urgency to close the case because the rapist was in prison serving a 25-year sentence. So the case just sat there for a while. But after I called the Florida attorney general's office, my case started to move forward. The prosecutor asked me if I was willing for them to take a plea deal, and I said no. I thought that they had his DNA, so they shouldn't do that. But ultimately they did take a plea to get him to admit to the crime. Three days before the trial, they let the detective know he had pled guilty. They told me to prepare a victim impact statement. So I wrote the statement, and they told me to be prepared for a concurrent sentence.
I told them that I had done everything right, and so had they. They had a match, and we (not the rapist) should be rewarded for all our work for three years. But the judge gave him a concurrent sentence because that was the deal with the prosecutor.
That frustrated me, and I went to one of our state representatives. I said the concurrent sentencing gave the rapist a "free" rape. So this representative and I worked together to write a bill, the Florida Sexual Predator Prosecution Act of 2000, which mandates consecutive sentences for serial rapists and repeat murderers. Now, in Florida, anyone who is convicted of multiple sex offenses will serve consecutive sentences.
What would have made the response better? What suggestions would you share with law enforcement about how to respond to cases like yours?
Greene: The law enforcement officers are passionate about the work they do and about protecting the public and getting the bad guys off the street. So they never mean to be insensitive. But they need to be aware of how they are communicating and to understand that victims are in chaos -- it's the worst time of their lives. And, unfortunately, officers can get desensitized because that state of crisis becomes the norm for them. Officers need to be careful how they talk about the crime. For example, at the hospital, they kept my boyfriend in a waiting area, but he overheard an officer say "we have a good rape." That is how my boyfriend found out I had been raped! They spoke that way because they thought they were going to be able to catch a serial rapist (there was a serial rapist in my neighborhood, and I was one of the first credible witnesses). But, of course, there is nothing good about rape.
It would have been so helpful to have a victim advocate involved at the time because advocates who work well with law enforcement can be so helpful in those first few moments. Law enforcement can focus on their job, and the advocate can focus on the victim. The advocate I later worked with explained so much, such as how the crime lab operates and prioritizes cases to process. That helped me be less angry about my kit sitting on the shelf. It's important for someone to educate the victim about how things happen in the investigation and at the crime lab. People need to know the limitations and how things work.
How did you become an advocate?
Greene: I became an advocate -- or maybe I'd call myself an activist -- about less than a year after the crime. I received a bill for my forensic exam. I refused to pay it. Not only should I not have been asked to pay the bill, but every time the bill came, it reminded me of that horrible thing that happened to me. I called the state attorney general's office and said I didn't understand -- I wasn't charged for the fingerprinting (as part of the investigation), so why was I billed for the forensic exam? They said they were working on a bill to prevent victims' having to pay for the exam. At that point, I discovered I had a voice. I was able to articulate to others what I had gone through and the impact it had on me. So I helped get a bill passed that makes it illegal for hospitals to charge victims for a forensic exam; it became law in 1995.
I never thought that I'd do some of the things I ended up doing, like being a spokesperson at the national level. In 2003, I met Attorney General John Ashcroft. I told him how much progress I think there has been on sexual assault and how this progress has made the younger generation more willing to report the crime and get back to living their lives. Then I got a call to participate with Attorney General Ashcroft and John Walsh in the announcement of the President's DNA initiative, which provided funding to eliminate the DNA backlog and train criminal justice professionals about forensic DNA. That was one of the proudest moments of my life, to stand with people who have done so much.
I think I have earned respect as an advocate by being positive and focusing on solutions and not just on the problem.
Please tell us about the organization you started.
Greene: Well, I started SOAR, a national nonprofit that empowers survivors through the healing process. It started when I was speaking at colleges and universities and sexual assault conferences about the dynamics of helping a person heal and recover. On the fifth anniversary of my assault, I decided I was tired of it being a negative day, so I wanted to change it to a positive. I decided to go skydiving. The adrenaline rush you get is similar to the fight or flight sensation, so it kind of reprograms the negative memories. Now, January 18th is no longer the day I was raped, it's the day I go skydiving! Shortly after the skydive, I was invited to share my experience on Oprah Winfrey's show, and she showed a clip of the skydive. The second year, about 20 people that I didn't know were there to go skydiving with me; to see the impact of this experience on the other survivors was very exciting and inspiring. Then I started Operation Freefall: The Two-Mile High Stand Against Sexual Assault®, a skydiving event that takes place simultaneously across the United States on the last Saturday of each April (National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month). In the past 10 years, the event has raised more than a million dollars for rape crisis centers across the country.
One of our other programs is "Living Out Loud," which uses improv techniques to help survivors live in the moment and trust their instincts. You can't do improv by yourself, so people learn the importance of a support system.
What advice do you have for victims?
Greene: First, you have to tell someone. If you suppress it, eventually it will wear on you and have negative effects in other parts of your life. You have to get counseling. While I understand it's a choice whether to report or not, the only way this crime will stop happening is if we report it and hold perpetrators accountable.
What advice (particularly regarding forensic DNA) would you have for other advocates who would like to help other victims?
Greene: Listen to what the victim needs. Support them in all areas of the healing process. Learn the roles of the other professionals working with the victim. Learn everything you can about forensic DNA and the databases, such as CODIS, so you can help victims understand the importance of this evidence and how it works. Educate yourself on what DNA can and can't do (from sources like the National Center for Victims of Crime's DNA Resource Center). Call your crime lab and ask them to give you a tour and explain the process to you. The more knowledgeable you are, the better you'll be able to keep the victim informed.
What are your thoughts about the impact of forensic DNA?
Greene: The impact has been so great in such a short amount of time -- it's hard to keep up with it. And yet there is still so much potential for growth and progress. Ultimately, I would like to see more funding from the state and federal government to build the capacity of our crime labs so we can fully address the issue of untested sexual assault kits, eliminate the backlog, and utilize the full potential of DNA in solving and preventing crimes.
Kellie Greene is the founder of SOAR®, Speaking Out About Rape, Inc.®, and currently serves as program advisor and victim advocate for the Peace Corps.