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For Detroit rape victim, journey to justice arduous

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

On Monday, Audrey Polk learned that justice — a process she thought finished — isn’t tidy, at all.

The facts of the case were simple and brutal, so much so that an appeals court justice described the case as fitting the sentencing guidelines for “terrorism.” In the darkest hours of early morning, on Feb. 17, 1997, a man forced his way into a Detroit apartment where a young mother, 26, lay asleep with her 6-year-old son and infant daughter.

At gunpoint, and with her son beside her, he raped Polk. She immediately did what a crime victim is expected to do: She called her father and the police that night. At the hospital, she endured an exam, giving evidence collected in a police evidence rape kit. Then she heard nothing for 14 years.

“I was a throwaway,” she says of her treatment at the hands of the Detroit Police Department. We are eating lunch in a Dearborn restaurant, as she sips at a glass of wine. She has a partner of more than a decade, Carlos Robinson, who attests to her struggle. She explains: “The feeling was you were thrown away in an abandoned warehouse somewhere, a place where I was posted and forgotten.”

Haunted by memories of one terrible night, she could neither sleep nor move comfortably in life. “Every time I saw a bald-headed short guy, I was afraid,” Polk says. “I couldn’t remember what he looked like, but I remembered his smell: funky, the smell of alcohol and cigarettes and funk.”

Polk, a home health care worker who is studying for a master’s degree in counseling, is 46 years old now. In 2013, hers was one of the first convictions resulting from the discovery — and subsequent testing — of thousands of rape kits. The renewed effort to test the kits, led by Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, had an immediate and salutory impact on her life: She could breathe again.

When her assailant, Antonio Jackson, was identified by matching DNA that should have been checked a decade before, prosecutors turned their solid case into a conviction. In the courtroom, tears streamed down Polk’s face as she exulted in a brief sensation of justice being done, the feeling that after years of telephone calls to an uncaring police department, “somebody finally did something.”

She thought he’d gotten away with the crime. “I thought about him putting on his socks the morning of his arrest, never imagining ... ,” she says. Jackson was sentenced to 30 to 50 years in prison.

For almost three years, Polk’s has been the most visible real face attached to this long, convoluted process. She has spoken at fundraisers, raising tens of thousands of dollars for the cause of victims, and given interviews. She has wept again and again. But the case, she learned Monday, isn’t over yet.

Her children are grown now. Her daughter, 19, is studying at Henry Ford Community College, hoping to become a dentist. Her son, 25, was changed by what happened that night: “The hell you go through doesn’t measure up to the hell my children have gone through,” she says. The legal process has taken its toll on Polk: Reporters who want her to tell her story. Prosecutors who want her in court, without offering to help with parking costs or gas or time away from work. A Victim’s Compensation Fund doesn’t help her, because the crime happened so long ago, the statute of limitations has expired. Her pain no longer counts, even though it lingers in her feelings of self-consciousness, that everyone knows.

Jackson, the convicted assailant, has appealed through the state court system. On Dec. 8, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered him to be resentenced, ruling that the trial judge had sentenced him prematurely, in advance of a state Supreme Court ruling. When Polk learned about this from a newspaper columnist, rather than from a prosecutor or victim advocate, she felt betrayed and abandoned, once again.

Even with DNA evidence, a prosecutor on a mission, and millions of dollars to test rape kits and try cases, living with uncertainty and fear is part of Audrey Polk’s existence.