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Police Had DNA Evidence To Put A Kansas City Woman’s Rapist In Jail — So Why Didn’t They?

Illustration by Jacob Joslyn
Listen to how prosecutors found DNA evidence that linked Juliette's rapist to the crime.

Juliette was startled awake on August 17, 1999, and faced a woman’s worst nightmare: a man was in her bedroom, brandishing a large knife.

“He said, ‘Be quiet and I won’t hurt you,’” says Juliette (a pseudonym). “I thought that meant he was going to rape me and leave.”

She lived in a home near Westport, just a few blocks off State Line Road on the Kansas side. He woke her up, oddly enough, by massaging her feet. Juliette had read all those tips in the women’s magazines in the 1980s that cautioned women not to fight an attacker, to try to get out alive. She offered money. And she looked him in the eye.

“I said, ‘I have a little four-year-old daughter,’ in an effort to get him to connect as a human being and that I’m needed in this world. And he said, ‘I’m not really into that.’”

A single mother, Juliette was alone that night – her daughter was staying with the girl’s grandparents. And her pleas didn’t work. Juliette’s attacker put a pillow over her face and continued to rape her.

Then the stabbing began.

“The pillow came off my face then and I’m like, ‘What did you do? You said you wouldn’t hurt me!’ He said, ‘You’ve seen my face and now I have to kill you.’”

Call it survival. Call it the fierce force of motherhood. She fought back.

"You’ve seen my face and now I have to kill you."

  He stabbed her in the stomach, her thigh, her face, her neck. She blacked out briefly, only to regain consciousness as he stabbed her in the heart and twisted the knife. She was ready to give up.

“In my mind I’m like, ‘Well, I’m 32 and you know, I’ve had a pretty good life. And it’s not that big of a deal if I die here. And then it hit me that I was a mom! I was like, ‘I’ve gotta stay alive!”

“I just took my legs and kicked him as hard as I could and he slammed against the wall. Before that he was always very polite. It was weird. Like ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ and ‘ma’am.’ Really weird. But he said, ‘Bitch you got blood all over me!’”

He ran out. She drug herself next door to her landlord’s house. She was naked and so bloody the landlord didn’t recognize her. In the ambulance, she heard the EMTs say she had punctured lungs.

“I told the EMTs, I’m like, ‘I promise you I’m going to stay alive until you get to the hospital. But tell the doctors that I have a four-year-old daughter and they have to keep me alive.’”

She lived, barely. She’s survived, mostly.

And now, 17 years later, Juliette’s attacker has been found, thanks to two young prosecutors opening an old case, a long-lost DNA “cold hit,” and the perseverance of a victim who hasn’t stopped telling her powerful story.

Still, Juliette’s case could have been solved six years ago — before her attacker committed at least two more sex crimes.

And before Juliette spent the last five years losing sleep, having surgeries, and dealing with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, high anxiety and the debilitating panic attacks brought on by a stranger’s random act of violence.

A cold hit in early 2010 identified Juliette’s attacker as Jibri Liu-Kinte Burnett, now 38 and living in Johnson County.

But the Kansas City, Kansas, Police Department failed to follow up on the lead and did nothing, a KCUR investigation has found.

DNA’s unpublicized failures

Juliette’s case exposed a major flaw in the way American law enforcement tracks DNA matches made through a high-tech system operated by the FBI called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

Credit Courtesy Facebook
During the time he was free, Jibri Liu-Kinte Burnett posted pictures of himself on Facebook.

Credit Courtesy Facebook
Another image from Burnett's Facebook page.

CODIS is a database that links all federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, allowing them to share forensic DNA evidence from violent crimes. Congress created the system in the mid-1990s to provide investigative leads in cases where law enforcement agencies can’t identify a suspect.

The FBI says the system currently includes more than 12 million profiles of known offenders, and claims many successes from CODIS and the National DNA Index System that feeds it. Most law enforcement agencies commend it as offering solid leads and saving valuable investigative time. The FBI would not comment for this story, deferring to the law-enforcement agency responsible for the case.

“Ultimately, the success of the CODIS program will be measured by the crimes it helps to solve,” reads the FBI website.

A statistical analysis doesn’t show a high rate of success.

Here’s why: After a match, or cold hit, the suspect’s identity trickles down through the system to the law enforcement agency that originally handled the crime. Too often, that information gets lost in the bureaucracy, mishandled by investigators or given low priority in already-overworked departments.

Frederick Bieber, an associate pathology professor at Harvard Medical School, is one of the nation’s experts on the system. In a 2006 study of CODIS’ faults published in the Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics, Bieber wrote that “hundreds of DNA database matches languish, without any follow-up by law enforcement or prosecutors.” That figure could be raised to “thousands” today, he tells KCUR.

“This process is like a pipeline, an imaginary pipeline, and there are possible leaks in the system all along that pipeline from one end to the other,” he says.

No matter how good the state or local crime lab may be, the “submitting agency” — the law-enforcement agency where the crime occurred — is often where the pipeline springs a leak, he says.

“The challenge is that sometimes these hits occur years later, sometimes decades later, and the original investigators or prosecutors, people downstream from the laboratory, have retired, have moved on to other jobs,” Bieber says. “Their desk is piled high with new cases and (the cold hits) therefore languish.”

That might be part of what happened with Juliette’s case.

The detectives who worked on the case back in 1999 are long gone, says Kansas City, Kansas, Police Major Curtis Nicholson, so the DNA match notification may have been sent to an administrative department rather than to investigators.

“It got kind of lost in this black hole, if you will,” Nicholson says. “That’s speculation. I don’t know how it got lost.”

This problem with the national system slides under the radar for two reasons: law enforcement agencies are unaware that they’re missing potential DNA matches or don’t make reports on these failures, and the FBI has an odd accounting for how CODIS assists agencies.

“It’s rare that they get publicized, these failures,” says Rockne Harmon, a former Alameda County senior deputy district attorney in Oakland, California, who is considered a leading expert in forensic DNA. “Who’s going to hold a press conference saying ‘We failed’? Especially if nobody knows it?”

In fact, the FBI doesn’t count the number of crimes CODIS has solved – there is no data on whether any of the cold hits result in arrests, prosecutions or convictions. Instead, The FBI uses a nebulous statistic called “investigations aided.” On average, CODIS “aided” in 45 percent of state investigations where forensic profiles were gathered across the U.S., according to data collected by KCUR.

The FBI uses a nebulous statistic called investigations aided.

  But that number is misleading, Harmon says, because “investigations aided” includes matches between cases that never identify a suspect. Given what he knows about how the FBI counts “investigations aided,” Harmon says the match figure is closer to 30 percent. So CODIS matches evidence to a person about one-third of the time, Harmon says, and the impact of those matches is unknown.

“Just imagine a company that manufacturers a product and sells it and never knows how much money they made or how many got sold or how many had to be thrown away because they’re bad. That’s CODIS,” Harmon says. “Over the years you’d have thought someone would have said, ‘Hey, maybe we ought to figure out what happens to these things.’”

Both Harmon and Bieber question the “investigations aided” figure, with Harmon calling it a “peculiar term” and Bieber saying it’s an “alleged metric of success.”

They say CODIS tracking systems should be mandatory for all law enforcement agencies. Harmon created one in Alameda County called CHOP, or CODIS Hits Outcome Project, which he hopes to make statewide under a legislative proposal now pending in California.

Tracking Burnett’s case

Where did the notice of the cold hit in Juliette’s case get lost?

According to court documents, the Kansas Bureau of Investigation discovered the match in CODIS and notified the Kansas City, Missouri, Police Department’s crime lab on February 24, 2010. The Missouri lab had been hired to do the analysis for Kansas City, Kansas, authorities, says the Missouri lab’s director, Linda Netzel.

Netzel wouldn’t tell KCUR when she notified the lab in Kansas City, Kansas, or who she directed the results to, saying it would be up to KCK authorities to release that information.

However, she said, the date on the report was “timely,” meaning it was close to February 2010.

“We don’t hold back that information, I can promise you that,” Netzel said.

Nicholson, the KCK Police major, says he has changed the CODIS notification system there: Now, he takes the first notifications and then assigns them to his district commanders.

Two young prosecutors, an old case

Juliette’s attacker might never have been found if two young prosecutors hadn’t been so eager to solve cold cases that they took on such projects in addition to their regular work.

Kristiane Bryant, a Wyandotte County senior assistant district attorney since May 2014, and Jennifer Tatum, an assistant Wyandotte County DA, got permission from their boss to take on such cases and chose a few to begin.

Credit Julie Denesha / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
Wyandotte County Senior Assistant District Attorney Kristiane Bryant (left) and Assistant Wyandotte County District Attorney Jennifer Tatum had an interest in re-opening old cases, and Juliette's was on their radar.

The case was on their radar, Bryant says, mainly because Juliette had told her story to The Pitch in 2009.

Fortunately, prosecutors had done something innovative with Juliette’s case. Knowing the two-year statute of limitations would expire if no one was charged, Wyandotte County in 2001 charged “John Doe ” with attempted murder, rape and aggravated burglary based on DNA evidence from Juliette’s rape kit. That was the first time a proxy had been used in Wyandotte County, and it kept the case open.

But most of the detectives on the case had retired or changed jobs. And some evidence was missing from the case, Bryant says. Still, she and Tatum caught a break at the beginning.

Both were sitting in Tatum’s office one day last year when she called the Kansas City, Missouri, lab and learned there was a match.

“When I called them they were like, ‘Well, we have it.’ And I just couldn’t believe it,” Tatum says. “He gave me the name of the person and I was like, ‘When did you get this?’ And it was 2010.”

Bryant and Tatum say they don’t know how Kansas City, Kansas, police missed the match notification.

“We’ve looked into it. I don’t think it makes a material difference in our case,” Bryant says. “Could it have been prosecuted sooner? Possibly. But there are a lot of other factors that had to come into play for us to proceed other than the CODIS hit.”

Burnett’s record includes ‘upskirting’

Juliette got a call from a Kansas City, Kansas, police detective about this time last year. She hadn’t heard from the police in years and figured they just wanted to update her file. She was astonished, she says, to hear they had arrested Burnett.

She had questions for the detective.

“I said, ‘Well, what did he say?’ And they said he confessed. And I said, ‘Does he show any remorse?’ He said, ‘Well, he’s glad that you are alive.’ And I said, ‘Well, that’s nice.' Because I’m not always so glad I’m alive.”

Burnett’s DNA profile was in CODIS because he’d been convicted on two counts of aggravated battery and intentional bodily harm in a domestic violence case in Olathe in 2008 (almost a decade after he attacked Juliette). He served seven months in jail and was ordered to stay away from that victim’s children. Burnett’s record also shows a series of misdemeanors in Olathe dating back to 1998.

Credit Courtesy Wyandotte County Detention Center
On April 8, 2016, Jibri Liu-Kinte Burnett, 38, pleaded guilty to attempted murder and rape in Wyandotte County.

He also has at least two convictions in Southern California, where he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor counts of sexual battery in Ventura County for videotaping women in public places in 2012 and 2014.

Oxnard Police Sgt. Luis McArthur told KCUR that he remembers Burnett’s 2012 case, saying he was arrested at a TJ Maxx department store for “up-skirting” — placing a cellphone camera on his shoe to videotape up and under a woman’s skirt.

McArthur told KCUR that Burnett said he’d moved to California in 2009 and had committed “up-skirting” several times, attributing his deviant behavior to a difficult life. He denied anything more serious than that, McArthur said.

“He said he had a rough life. He said he had some kids that had been taken away from the state in Kansas,” McArthur said. “He was minimizing his crimes with us.”

Through his lawyer, Burnett declined to comment for this story.

On April 8, 2016, Burnett agreed to a deal with prosecutors, pleading guilty to attempted murder and rape in Juliette’s case. Wearing a gray-and-white striped jail jumpsuit with his hands shackled, a mannerly Burnett answered Wyandotte County Judge Bill Klapper’s questions by saying “Yes, sir” and “Yes, your honor.”

He quoted scripture about reaping what is sown, admitting that he broke into Juliette’s house and hurt her.

“I did what I did,” Burnett said softly. “I raped her.”

Facing a maximum of 36 years, Burnett will serve 17. He will be formally sentenced on Thursday, May 12.

Physical, emotional scars

Although it’s a big fear for many women, stranger rapes amount to about a quarter of sexual assaults, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Most victims know their attackers.

Juliette’s case is also notable because of her severe physical injuries. Burnett stabbed her in the neck, severing nerves, so her left shoulder and arm were paralyzed for a time and are now nearly immobile. He cut many of her internal organs, including her intestines. She’s been hospitalized dozens of times, and has had at least 15 surgeries.

In chronic pain, she is on disability and works just part-time. Still, she says, “I pull off looking normal.”

But she’s not. The rape, she says, “changed my entire world view.”

“It’s hard to remember how I was before, but I think I was a pretty trusting person. I think I usually assumed the best of people. I gave people the benefit of the doubt. I liked helping people, just anyone. Homeless guy on the street, I would take him to McDonald’s and get a hamburger because I don’t want him to buy cheap vodka,” she says with a laugh and a joke about being controlling.

“Now I don’t. I don’t trust people. My first gut reaction to all men is suspect.”

She has no romantic relationship, doesn’t want one. But she raised her daughter, now 21, and earned a doctorate degree at the University of Kansas last year.

There’s some relief now, Juliette says, because Burnett has admitted his crimes and because he’s behind bars. She feels the sentence is too light, but Juliette agreed to the plea bargain because she feared the missing evidence would hurt the case by creating doubt in the jury.

She’s convinced that there are more Burnett victims out there. She wants all police agencies in the Kansas City metro area to finish all rape kit testing and to run his DNA against other unsolved cases.

“I don’t really like the idea of locking people away, but if they are such a huge threat to the safety of women…,” she trails off, thinking of her own journey. “It changes the course of your life. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t have it on my mind.”

“And I really don’t want anyone else go through it if I can prevent it in any way.”

Peggy Lowe is investigations editor at KCUR and Harvest Public Media. You can find her on Twitter at @peggyllowe.

I’m a veteran investigative reporter who came up through newspapers and moved to public media. I want to give people a better understanding of the criminal justice system by focusing on its deeper issues, like institutional racism, the poverty-to-prison pipeline and police accountability. Today this beat is much different from how reporters worked it in the past. I’m telling stories about people who are building significant civil rights movements and redefining public safety. Email me at lowep@kcur.org.
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