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Profiles in DNA

Debbie Smith

Founder of H-E-A-R-T and sexual assault survivor

An interview with Debbie Smith, a sexual assault survivor, the founder of H-E-A-R-T (Hope Exists after Rape Trauma), and a longtime advocate for the elimination of DNA testing backlogs. 

Would you tell me the story about what happened to you?

Smith: In 1989, I was doing the laundry at our home in Williamsburg, Virginia, on a weekday afternoon. My husband Rob, a police officer, was asleep upstairs after working a night shift. I stepped outside, and when I came in, I left the door unlocked. Within a few minutes, a masked stranger came in, grabbed me and dragged me outside to a wooded area. He robbed me and raped me repeatedly. As he did, he kept telling me, "Remember, I know where you live. If you tell anyone, I will come back and kill you."

After he left, I ran upstairs, sobbing, to wake Rob and tell him what had happened. I begged him not to call the police because I just wanted to take a shower and try to forget about it. But Rob convinced me to report the crime and go to the emergency room for a sexual assault forensic exam.  

After the rape, fear took over my life. I waited for more than six years for the rapist to be identified. I couldn't silence the sound of his voice, threatening to kill me if I told anyone what had happened. I was terrified for myself and my family, and was suicidal for a time. It choked all joy out of my life, and all I wanted to do was find peace and rest from the memories that constantly played in my mind. 

What made it possible to solve the case? In particular, how was forensic DNA involved?

Smith: The only way the case was solved was with DNA. In 1995, there was a cold hit -- actually the fourth cold hit in the country. The reason it had taken so long was that with so many offenders already in prison, it took several years to get the DNA samples and compare them to the samples from crime scenes that were already in the national DNA database. When they got my offender's sample and analyzed it and put it into the database, they got a cold hit, which meant it matched against the evidence they had collected from me after the crime. DNA was our biggest•and really our only evidence that was definitive. All the other evidence was not definite. So DNA gave me back my life. I can't think of any way to say it better because I had become a shell of a person. This test put a name to a face and gave me my life again. After six and a half years, they found the man who changed our lives. 

Was there a law in place at the time that required the testing of offender samples?

Smith: At the time I was raped, Virginia was just starting to address the revolution in DNA evidence. About a year afterwards, I believe, Virginia passed the law to test all convicted felons. Then it took some time to collect and test the samples and submit them to the database. 

What were the strengths and weaknesses of the law enforcement response to the crime against you?  

Smith: The strengths were that they were there immediately, within minutes of our call. We could definitely tell they wanted to get the job done. They cared about what had happened. They were very professional, and they wanted to find this man and find him quickly. They did everything they knew how to do and were trained to do. It was my husband's department, and this was family to them. 

But that was also part of the problem. There were constant questions, which were normal. But in their haste to get the questions answered, it made me feel that maybe they didn't believe me, that I was being interrogated instead of interviewed. That made me more anxious. I knew they cared about me as a person and as a crime victim in the jurisdiction, but at the same time, I felt nervous and defensive. I could also see how much worse this whole experience would be for someone who had no ties to the police department. That was a weakness. They really didn't seem to understand what this was doing to me. If they had taken me to another room where there wasn't so much commotion with people in and out -- with the lead detectives asking questions of the other detectives -- it might have been easier for me. The confusion made me anxious, and I couldn't answer as clearly as I wanted to.  

I think they are better trained now and have more effective ways to work with victims. One simple thing officers can do, for example, is just wear civilian clothes. Uniforms connote authority and put victims on the defensive. If the officers are not in uniform, the victim feels on an even plane with the officer and that she has an advocate. Also, officers need to be calm and relaxed so the victim does not become even more anxious and can relax. Officers need to take charge in a way that makes you feel everything is going to be all right.  

What would have made the response better?  What suggestions would you share with law enforcement about how to respond to cases like yours?

Smith: I'm a strong advocate of SARTs (sexual assault response teams) and forensic nurses, who are so well trained to work with sexual assault victims who may be in trauma. One person deals with the victim, and someone else deals with everything else. SARTs and forensic nurses know how to make victims comfortable and reduce their anxiety and how to help officers do their job. They take care of the victims and deal with their emotional needs, as well as help the officers get the information they need to proceed with the investigation. The information will be more complete and accurate for the officer, even if it takes more time.  

How did you become an advocate?

Smith: I became an "advocate by accident," as Lifetime Television likes to call me. I wish I could say I thought it out, but I didn't! I was asked to speak to the Commission on the Future of DNA that Attorney General Janet Reno had put together because they thought a victim who had been helped through DNA would help them decide how to use DNA in the future. They asked me to speak, and at first, I first said no, but my husband convinced me I could do it. I went to Chicago and spoke to the Commission. They asked me to put my testimony on their Web site. I figured very few people would see it, so I said, "sure, that's fine." My phone has not stopped ringing since then. And in all that time, all I have done is what I am asked to do. I am a private person, and don't like to be in the center of things, but I knew something had to be done. I knew what DNA had done for me, and I wanted to make sure that other victims have that same opportunity. The more people I met, the more I saw what needed to be done, and there were many opportunities to do that. I also met so many people who helped me figure out what to say and how to say it.  

What changes have you helped bring about? 

Smith: Probably the biggest change is the Debbie Smith grant fund to fund laboratory testing of rape kits. I've met quite a few victims and received letters and e-mails from victims who said their cases would never have been solved without that money. Changes like those are an amazing impact -- even if it had been just one person. I've also spoken to at least three lab people who told me that they had been planning to leave their jobs, but after hearing me tell how important their work was to me, they decided to stay on. When I can help someone understand the value of their job for victims, that's very satisfying.   

In addition to advocating for federal laws on DNA testing, we've done some legislative work here in Virginia. For example, recently we had a change in law that allows victims to meet with their perpetrators under certain circumstances, which was supposed to be part of our victims' bill of rights. We had to pass legislation to clarify that victims have this right because there was some opposition to carrying it out. Other states have changed their database requirements, such as expanding collection of DNA to all felons, certain misdemeanor offenders, or even all arrestees because of some of the things we've done.

After the Debbie Smith Act was passed in 2004, Rob and I set up the H-E-A-R-T (Hope Exists after Rape Trauma) foundation to support victims and affect positive change in laws that influence victims' lives. H-E-A-R-T promotes the continued use of DNA and educates legislators, law enforcement professionals, and others about forensic DNA. We also support victim empowerment and greater respect of sexual assault victims by the public.  

How has all this work affected you personally?

Smith: So much of this work overwhelms me, and if I concentrated too much on that, I probably couldn't bear the weight of it -- for example, of having my name on a federal law. I'm not sorry, but it's a weight I didn't expect. Like today, for example, we are going to DC to advocate for continued funding for the Debbie Smith grant program. So many people fought to get this money to help victims, so I feel a lot of responsibility to make sure the money goes where it is supposed to go. I always think of the victims who tell me their cases would not have been solved without that money, and that keeps me going. One of our key goals is to ensure that the grant funds go to what they were appropriated for and make sure we are all working so that it all goes to help victims. 

But, by the way, though, this kind of interview makes me uneasy because this work is the work of so many people who figure out what to do and where my testimony would be helpful, and they help me every step of the way. So this is not my impact -- I'm just a "face" of this movement because I happen to be a person with the experiences I've had.

Have these changes met your goals as an advocate? Why and why not?

Smith: I've been very surprised by the power of one person's story or testimony. I would never have dreamed that it would get to this point. I've also been surprised by the education I've had in how the government works and the people in Congress as individuals. Most of them really are there for what they think is the good of our country rather than their own benefit. I am surprised at how I have been accepted -- that they will listen to someone like me -- a housewife from Williamsburg. 

Would you have done anything differently if you had it to do again?

Smith: I don't think so. Maybe the only thing would be educating me more on the toll it would take on me personally. Had I known how this work would affect my life, I would have done it but prepared myself better for how to deal with it. Maybe I would have held up better, especially in the early days. It still bothers me, but not quite as badly. I am always concerned that I might not get the results we are hoping for if I say or do the wrong thing.

What advice do you have for victims?

Smith: My strongest advice for victims is to make sure they find a good counselor and make sure they have someone they can lean on until they get through whatever trauma they are facing. The other is to talk about it because that's the most important part of healing. It also makes other people aware that this kind of trauma can happen to anyone. The more we talk about it, the more we heal ourselves, and we end up helping other victims. It's the only way we will ever take away the stigma. This is the only crime where a victim has to prove her innocence. No matter what the circumstances, a person does not deserve to be raped, and victims will not bear the shame.

In the fall, H-E-A-R-T is having a victim-to-victim retreat. Each victim who has made progress in their healing is assigned to a victim trying to find their way through the trauma. The goal is to teach each victim how to speak out about the sexual assault -- not to be an advocate but to get beyond it and to learn how to deal with it in their lives. They need to tell at least one other person, and then they can see how many other people have been sexually assaulted. We are planning to build a curriculum for such trainings, and this event will be a start in the right direction. We have come a long way. When I was raped, no one talked about it. But we have made progress, and the best way to make an impact is a few lives at a time.

What advice (particularly regarding forensic DNA) would you have for other advocates who would like to help other victims?

Smith: I would like for advocates to make sure victims understand that DNA testing does take time. It is not done as quickly as it is on TV. But what DNA yields is truth and truth is worth the wait. A sexual assault forensic exam, at its very best done by a forensic nurse, is a long, uncomfortable, and embarrassing process but it can provide indisputable evidence that the crime occurred. Advocates can also help victims understand how important it is to have the evidence collected and then decide if they want to prosecute. Hasty decisions are often regretted. Although the forensic exam is difficult, it gives victims a choice of prosecuting or not when the victim's head is a little clearer.

What do you want people to understand about the importance of forensic DNA?

Smith: The importance of DNA is my whole focal point, and so much of what I say and do is to explain why it's such a powerful tool. DNA is the one evidence that can definitively show that someone has been sexually assaulted. It's always there, and it isn't intimidated. It is truthful, honest, and fair. It was the first time, when Rob walked in and told me we had the proof, I wanted to live again. When I walked into that courtroom, I knew it didn't make any difference what anyone said because I had proof that this had happened, and no matter what, no one could ever doubt my word. That piece of paper validated me and everything I had been through. I could take a breath again. And there was only one thing that could have done that. Otherwise, I would not have been sure. I don't have to wonder whether I have put the wrong person in prison. I have proof, and I know I have done the right thing. There is no other way to give victims that confidence. 

This project was developed with funding under cooperative agreement 2009-SZ-B9-K010 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed herein are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.