The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 2

If you missed Part 1 of this story, you can access it here

In the last post, we covered what a rape kit is, and the scope of the rape kit backlog. In this post we will pick up with the progress and challenges of getting to the bottom of the backlog.

Successes so Far

rape-kits-backlogFifteen states and dozens of municipalities have made the pledge to get to the bottom of the backlog, with huge success: thousands of kits have been processed, identifying hundreds of serial rapists. After a 2011 call by the Ohio Attorney General to process old rape kits, over 8,000 kits were sent to Ohio’s state crime lab, and over 4,000 have been tested so far. These tests have resulted in 1,474 matches with the national DNA database—over 35% of kits that had been sitting in storage had a match. What is even more staggering is that at least 200 suspected serial rapists have been identified. Houston mayor, Annise Parker, prioritized the processing of rape kits, even though it cost $5.9 million. They turned up 894 DNA hits on the national database.

North Carolina

The State Crime Lab of North Carolina prides itself on processing rape kits sent to their lab immediately. However, even “immediately” still means survivors are waiting 18 months to 2 years for results. According to a recent report, the state crime labs are struggling with recruitment and retention of scientists, many of whom leave after only a short time for better paying jobs in the private sector. The state is taking steps to decrease turnaround time for DNA evidence by opening a new lab and hiring additional scientists, and the General Assembly is considering salary increases to improve retention. An unfortunate consequence of the delay is that after two years of waiting, it is harder to secure a conviction, and sometimes survivors just want to move on.

In Charlotte, where they have their own crime lab, a spokesperson for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department stated that even though there is a backlog of 1,019 kits, this number should not be taken seriously, because over 600 of those were from cases that had been closed. But a major argument for the processing of kits in the backlog is to find hits even in closed cases. For example, a kit that was not processed due to lack of evidence could produce a match with DNA previously entered for a no-suspect rape case, or another rape case closed for lack of evidence—putting the pieces together can strengthen both cases and help get serial rapists off the streets. Continue reading “The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 2”

The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1

The CSI Effect

textrib-rapekits-003Crime shows on TV make it look so easy. You see investigators talking with the weeping victim, and then the scene cuts to someone walking in with coffee in one hand and a file folder in the other. The results came back from the lab and they’ve got a match. Unfortunately, in real life, evidence collection and processing after a sexual assault is often a traumatic, time-consuming procedure, fraught with prejudice, victim-blaming, and political pressures.

What is a Rape Kit?

A “rape kit” is shorthand for the process that a survivor can choose to undergo within 72 hours of a sexual assault to preserve evidence that may link the perpetrator to the crime. Essentially, the survivor’s body is the scene of the crime, and a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) collects samples of anything that might contain DNA or other physical evidence, such as swabs of the mouth and genitals, the survivor’s clothing, and brushings from the survivor’s body. The SANE nurse also takes pictures and documents any injuries. Samples of the survivor’s blood, saliva, and hair (both head hair and pubic hair) are taken to compare to any other evidence found. The survivor’s full medical history as well as an account of the assault is recorded. The rape kit collection usually takes four to six hours to complete, during which time the survivor is discouraged from eating, drinking, or using the bathroom. The evidence is then packed up in a box and handed over to law enforcement.

In North Carolina, if the survivor is not filing a police report right then, the box is put in storage for up to one year and can be retrieved if and when the survivor decides to press charges. If an investigation is opened, the DNA collected from the survivor’s body can be compared to the DNA of a suspect if there is one, or entered into the national DNA database to see if there is a match with anyone already known to law enforcement. DNA can confirm known suspects, identify unknown suspects, or eliminate suspects from the investigation. Continue reading “The Untested Rape Kit Backlog – Part 1”