For two decades, the possible answer to an unsolved 1985 Topeka rape case sat in the evidence vault at the Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
Last fall, the Journal-World published articles profiling the story of Joe Jones, who initially was convicted in the rape. DNA testing wasn’t part of Jones’ trial in 1985, but a test in 1992 exonerated him and he was released from prison. After that, the case sat unexamined for 20 years until publicity prompted the Topeka Police Department to reopen the case and retest the DNA evidence. With the help of new test results and a new DNA databank, the Topeka police recently were able to identify Kansas inmate Joel Russell as a suspect in the rape.
How many other unsolved Kansas crimes could be solved by testing old DNA evidence?
It comes down to looking for untested DNA evidence in unsolved cases, something done by several of the larger police agencies in Kansas — such as Topeka — which have cold case units designated to solving old crimes. But what about smaller Kansas law enforcement agencies with more limited resources?
Imagine this scenario: A rape occurs in a small Kansas town before DNA technology, which became available by the early 1990s. Maybe evidence of the crime was collected, but there was simply no way to get any meaningful test results. The evidence was kept and stored. Years went by, memory of the crime faded, and police retired and family members of the victim — and maybe the actual victim — died or moved away.
The answer to the crime sits in storage, but no one asks the questions.
A current federal bill, the Sex Abuse Forensic Evidence Registry Act, seeks to address the problems of untested DNA evidence, and would require law enforcement agencies to identify old cases where possible forensic evidence was collected. It would amount to an audit of evidence in old sex crime cases.
Passage of this bill would go a long way toward finding justice for victims, but these are efforts the state of Kansas should pursue at the state level, regardless of the outcome of the federal legislation.
The issue could be pursued through state legislation or it could be handled as an initiative by the Kansas Bureau of Investigation or the Kansas Attorney General’s Office.
Kansas needs to make resolving old sex crimes and murders a priority, not just for the victims but for the criminals — like Joel Russell — who may continue to pose a threat to public safety.
How many Kansas cold cases could be solved? We won’t know unless we look.