Berman: The saga of rapist Joseph Blackmer’s DNA

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

The victim was a 23-year-old married woman, four months pregnant. On Dec. 17, 1981, a week before Christmas, she answered a knock at the door from a man asking for travel directions. It was to become a classic case of stranger rape — brutal, random and, seemingly, unsolvable.

The Kent County Sheriff’s Department ended its investigation the following June. But the file wasn’t tossed into a storage room and forgotten. Instead, the state police sent its rape kit evidence — hospital laboratory slides, along with a bed sheet and nightgown — to its forensic laboratory, where the evidence was stored in a freezer for almost 20 years. What followed was a police crime saga that almost derailed at least twice, but ultimately vindicated the forensic scientists, Kent County sheriff’s detectives and prosecutors who closed the case.

A Michigan court decision recently rejected the appeal of Joseph H. Blackmer, the man charged with the 1981 rape. The case demonstrates how useful DNA technology can be in solving sexual assault cases, even years after the fact, as Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy readies her department to analyze DNA results from more than 8,000 cases now being tested in private and state labs.

“This case shows that DNA evidence, even if it is examined belatedly, can bring justice to victims,” Worthy said.

Back in 1981, before the advent of DNA testing, forensic scientists relied on matching blood type and other less sophisticated tests. By 1995, the O.J. Simpson trial familiarized the nation with the power, and fallibility, of DNA testing. In 1999, the Michigan State Police hired Joel Schultze, now the supervisor of forensic biology at its laboratory in Grand Rapids, to oversee a group of scientists and technicians. His team’s mission: Inventory the content of three freezers at the lab storing 15,000 samples dating to the early 1980s.

It was a laborious task that took years. “We sent each investigating agency a list of every case we had in the freezers and had them check to see if it was open or closed,” Schultze said. The open cases were tested for DNA and, eventually, entered into the interstate DNA data bank known as CODIS. Although the case had been returned at some point to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department, an alert investigator returned it to the laboratory, and in 2008, says Schultze, “we had a hit” — a match with an unknown prisoner in Indiana.

Yet three years elapsed from the time Schultze sent an email to Indiana corrections officials notifying them that he had a match — a specimen ID number linked to a location — and any kind of response. “It may have been a low priority for the Indiana officials, because they knew he was locked up,” he says. But in 2011, after Schultze re-sent his email, Joseph H. Blackmer was identified as a Michigan truck driver serving a 90-year sentence in Indiana for a 1982 rape there.

“Unbenownst to us, he had confessed to (the Michigan rape) years ago,” said Robin Eslinger, the Kent County assistant prosecutor who worked on the case. “We had no idea that he was in custody down there.”

Extradited to Michigan, Blackmer readily confessed to the Michigan crime. But he preserved his right to appeal, citing the length of elapsed time since 1981. At that time, a first-degree criminal assault charge had to be filed within six years of the crime.

Since 2000, there’s been no statute of limitations on first-degree sexual criminal conduct. A Michigan Court of Appeals panel rejected Blackmer’s appeal, finding that because he had been living in another state, the statute of limitations did not apply. Blackmer’s sentence of 25-80 years runs concurrently with the Indiana sentence.

The court decision may give new hope to sexual assault victims who despaired of finding justice. Blackmer’s Michigan victim, now in her late 50s, readily agreed to participate in the case when she was approached by prosecutors in 2011, and she testified that the assault has left a lingering, painful impact on her life.

“It’s been a rough 31 years,” she said in a Kent County courtroom in 2013, as she delivered a victim impact statement three decades after being assaulted, according to an account that described her as devastated by the crime.

The Blackmer case demonstrates how decisively DNA evidence changed the crime-solving process, and reinforces Worthy’s decision to test “every one” of the rape kits she located in a Detroit Police Department storage area in 2011. The appeals court decision bolsters the argument for analyzing even old cases.

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Laura Berman is the Detroit News’ metro columnist.