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Rape evidence in U.S. languishes untested in police storage

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation - Wed, 24 Apr 2013 13:15 GMT
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Women raise one finger to the air as they dance to the theme song of the "One Billion Rising" in New York, on Feb, 14, 2013. The campaign calls for an end to violence against women and girls. REUTERS/Mike Segar
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NEW YORK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The United States leads the world in the use of rape kits to gather DNA and forensic evidence from victims of sexual assault, but hundreds of thousands of those kits remain untested, some for years, according to researchers.

The number of untested kits could be as high as 400,000 - the still widely quoted figure released by the Bush Administration in 2004 when it announced the creation of the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant Program to assist states with reducing the backlog. Smith was a rape victim who waited six years for her kit to be tested.

The backlog so disturbed Julie Smolyansky, the president and chief executive officer of Chicago-based Lifeway Foods and a certified rape crisis counselor, that in late March she announced the launch of Test400k, a national campaign to raise awareness, advocate and support innovation in rapid DNA analysis. Financing will come from grants, corporate sponsorships and other fundraising, she said.

The problem - and a troubling symptom of the lingering lassitude about rape investigations in the U.S. - is that no one really knows the actual number of untested kits languishing in police storage rooms around the country, according to those working in the field.

“It’s not just that there are no updated numbers, there are no numbers nationally,” said Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation.  

There is no national database keeping tabs on untested kits, no organised tracking of rape kits in most jurisdictions, and no federal law mandating timely testing, while only two states, Illinois and Texas, have passed laws mandating that action.

DECADES-OLD EVIDENCE

The number is estimated to have decreased somewhat since 2004, but new caches of untested kits are still being found on a regular basis. Two months ago, for example, 51 kits were found in a suburban Chicago police storage room, the oldest dating back more than three decades.

Tofte formerly was a Human Rights Watch researcher who authored a 2009 report that first documented the existence of untested kits sitting on police storage shelves in Los Angeles. Similar situations have emerged in many jurisdictions around the country.

The Joyful Heart Foundation is a New York-based non-profit founded by actress Mariska Hargitay, star of the popular TV series "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," to combat sexual and domestic violence. A Joyful Heart continues to push states to adopt laws mandating the processing of all rape kits and the creation of a national database.

The reasons for the backlog are myriad. "Law enforcement agencies say the number one reason they don’t process kits is lack of resources. I would say, in my observations, that the number one reason is less about resources than will and the continued deficiencies in the way that law enforcement in a lot of jurisdictions treat sexual assault cases," Tofte said.

The cost to process a rape kit at a laboratory averages about $1,200. Kits are typically provided by the state, which also bears the cost of the kit and its analysis.

Smolyansky, whose foundation has begun to work with law enforcement agencies in Chicago’s Cook County, said she has found a private lab that would lower the processing cost to about $500 per kit if there was enough volume.

HER WORD VS DETECTIVE’S

However, cost is not the only problem, Tofte said.  One key obstacle for getting a rape kit to a lab for analysis is the wide discretion afforded to police investigators to determine if a case deserves to proceed - a compelling argument, she said, for the mandatory sending of all kits for testing, even those involving alleged rapes by known acquaintances or intimate partners.

“Why are some cases left behind? Inevitably they come back, over and over again, to (the detectives’) opinion of the victim, her value to speak, her worth, her position in our society and how likely she is to be believed,” Tofte said.

She noted that in reviewing public records on rape cases, she consistently found derogatory comments about the victim made by detectives who noted the victim’s potential role in the assault, including her decision to consume alcohol or to engage in what they deemed other “risky behaviour”.

Rape, often underreported, has the lowest arrest rate of all serious violent crimes in the U.S., hovering around an average 20 percent nationally, according to federal statistics. Even lower are prosecution and conviction rates, at around 9 percent and 5 percent respectively, according to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), one of the nation’s largest anti-sexual assault organisations.

TRUE COST OF UNTESTED KITS

A rape kit is used in conjunction with a thorough physical examination of the victim by a health professional trained to examine sexual assault victims. 

In addition to documentation forms and evidence bags for the victim’s clothing, it typically contains swabs, bags and envelopes used to collect and store possible samples of DNA, such as semen, hair or skin samples left under the victim’s fingernails, left by the perpetrator during the rape.

It also contains sterile bed sheets to collect fibers and other possible physical evidence that may have transferred from the perpetrator and falls off the victim during the exam. 

The cost to society of failing to test rape kits goes far beyond the case of the individual victim.

For example, in New York City, which has cleared a backlog of 16,000 untested kits since 1999 and now immediately tests every single kit collected, the arrest rate for rape has soared to 70 percent.

DNA from the New York City’s processed kits has resulted in at least 2,000 matches in a national DNA database linking the perpetrator to either other unrelated rapes or various other crimes.

Los Angeles also has cleared its backlog, but, Tofte said, “I’m guessing most jurisdictions have a rape kit backlog if they haven’t tackled it.”

LEFT LIKE GARBAGE

Smolyansky, 37, who volunteered for three years as a certified rape crisis counselor during college, was appalled and angered when she read a  2010 Human Rights Watch report which found that 80 percent of the rape kits collected in Illinois had never been sent to a lab for testing, many sitting in storage rooms for years.

“I couldn’t believe that only 20 percent of the rape kits I had collected were processed,” she said, recalling the dozens of women she had sat with in hospital rooms as a volunteer through the often difficult, invasive and lengthy six-hour-plus rape examinations.

Thinking of the untested kits, Smolyansky said, “I had a visceral reaction. How unfair… to just leave them sitting there like garbage.”

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