A visitor discovered the first victim half-naked in a bathroom at Duke Hospital, recovering from having been choked unconscious. Bits of her attacker’s flesh were lodged under her fingernails, the remnants of a violent struggle.

A month and a half later, another woman was walking home on Ellerbe Creek Trail when the attacker again appeared and strangled his victim from behind until she blacked out. This time, he raped her. 

Despite a sexual assault kit collected from the second victim, as well as surveillance footage of the first victim and DNA samples from her fingernails, these 2015 attacks went unpunished for six years.

But the attacker, 33-year-old Emanuel Burch, couldn’t hide forever. Thanks to a state-funded initiative with the Durham Police Department (DPD), Burch was sentenced on Oct. 25 to at least 16 years in prison—the latest in a string of convictions in rape cold cases.

Since 2019, the DPD’s Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has been working through an enormous logjam in mostly untested rape kits. The unit has identified at least three other repeat offenders and has charged over a dozen suspects in total. And they’re only about halfway done.

Said Lt. Stephen Vaughan, who works closely with the unit: “We still have a lot of work to do.” 

A massive backlog

When North Carolina passed the Survivor Act in 2019, the state had one of the country’s most extensive rape kit backlogs. Of the more than 16,000 kits left untested in North Carolina, 1,700 were in Durham County, The News & Observer reported.

Vaughan blames the limitations of old DNA testing technology, as well as previous state restrictions on when rape kits could be processed.

At an October 2020 news conference, however, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein also referenced a lack of “sensitivity” toward sexual assault victims. He said some police departments used to dismiss a case if the alleged victim’s story varied at all between retellings.

“There’s [now] greater scientific knowledge about the impact of trauma,” Stein said, referring to research that shows traumatic memories are often shaky or inconsistent. “There’s more understanding about victims’ rights.”

The Survivor Act allocated $6 million to jumpstart progress on untested rape kits. In the past two years, Durham County has submitted almost its entire backlog to a private testing company in Virginia. 

Bode Technology is working through these kits — some of which date back to 1988 — alongside a mountain of other kits from throughout North Carolina and other states. Any time the lab gets a hit on a Durham DNA sample, it notifies the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit.

Catching a rapist 

Police got their first strong lead on the two strangulation attacks in September 2019.

Unlike in many other cold cases, investigators had sent this rape kit for testing shortly after collecting it, said prosecutor Blake Norman. They identified leads and pored over available evidence. But they were unable to match the kit’s DNA to any suspects, and the case soon went cold.

Investigators have two main ways of identifying criminals through DNA.

The simplest way is if a person is arrested on a felony charge. Law enforcement collect alleged felons’ DNA and upload it to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national genetic database. Testing companies like Bode regularly check their databases’ DNA against CODIS and notify investigators when there’s a match.

This can provide powerful evidence against a suspect. 

“You take away the argument of, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it’ or ‘I wasn’t there,’” Norman said. 

When there isn’t a CODIS match, investigators can also turn to genetic genealogy. Genetic profiling companies like 23andMe and Ancestry.com send their data to law enforcement. So if a suspect’s close family members take one of these tests, that can help investigators home in on the criminal even if the suspect’s DNA isn’t in CODIS. 

By itself, however, genetic genealogy doesn’t provide enough evidence to arrest someone. That’s because it’s imprecise and usually can’t distinguish a perpetrator from, say, their sibling. Investigators need the suspect’s own DNA, and they sometimes have to find creative ways of gathering it—digging through trash cans, collecting cigarette butts, etc.

Durham police identified Burch when they got a CODIS hit following his arrest in another state, Norman said.

A cheek swab confirmed the match, and Burch was charged with strangulation, sexual battery and attempted rape in the first attack, as well as rape and attempted murder in the second. Prosecutors later dropped the attempted rape and attempted murder charges.

Pressing charges

Generally, the judicial system invests little time or resources into crime victims. Prosecutors represent the state, not victims, and some Durham victims have complained about a lack of support from courts and say they have little influence on how their cases are prosecuted.

But the Special Victims Unit, which handles child abuse cases as well as sexual assaults, works differently.

Investigators say they don’t prosecute alleged rapists until they contact survivors and get their consent. Since many attackers are already serving extensive prison sentences by the time police identify them, investigators say, victims sometimes choose not to press charges.

At an Apr. 13 press conference this year, Vaughan said the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit had found DNA matches in 17 cases, resulting in 13 suspects being charged.

Vaughan said police direct victims to an in-house advocate who works with them and helps them decide whether to go forward with the case. Survivors and their loved ones may also seek free counseling and other confidential services from the Durham Crisis Response Center.

Jasmin Young-Bradshaw, the center’s interim executive director, stressed that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to victim advocacy.

“We’re here to listen,” Young-Bradshaw said. “Really, it’s about supporting them in a way that they see is fit.”

Securing a conviction

In addition to Burch, the Cold Case Sexual Assault Unit has identified at least three other serial attackers.

One suspect, who faces charges in one Durham attack and two attacks in Florida, was still awaiting trial as of the April 2021 press conference. Another pleaded guilty in August to two counts of rape. And the third—a 60-year-old—died in March while facing two charges each of rape and sexual battery.

As for Burch, he pleaded guilty as charged in the first 2015 attack and took an Alford plea in the second. This means that he denies sexually assaulting the victim, but admits that a jury would convict him based on the evidence.

A judge ordered Burch to undergo psychiatric counseling, receive substance abuse treatment and participate in a behavior adjustment program for sexual offenders. Altogether, Burch may serve up to 24 years and 3 months behind bars.

It’s unclear if Duke Hospital made any changes to its security following the attack there. A spokesperson said over email that she would try to find out, but several weeks later, she had yet to provide details.

Durham County’s backlog of rape kits is no longer growing, Vaughan said. Police send most kits for testing within a week, and survivors can view the current status of their kit via an online portal.

DNA testing continues to get faster and more accurate, and Vaughan believes sexual assault investigations will improve.

“As the technology gets better and better and we learn more about it and get more used to it,” he said, “it just becomes a better tool.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, the following resources are available:

• Durham Crisis Response Center 24-hour help line: 919-403-6562 (English); 919-519-3735 (Spanish)

• Durham Police Department Special Victims Unit: 919-560-4440

• NC Coalition Against Sexual Assault: 919-871-1015