SACRAMENTO, CA – The numbers are staggering.
It’s estimated that 180,000 rape kits sit in police and crime lab storage facilities across the country awaiting DNA analysis.
Until this year, Los Angeles County had more than 7,000 untested rape kits from the LAPD. The backlog dated back decades.
Rape kits hold vital DNA evidence that could lead to a criminal conviction. Some are argue that failing to test every kits means thousands of possible rapists remain free.
In the Sacramento County, all rape kits from the police and sheriff’s departments are sent to the D.A.’s Crime Lab on Broadway Avenue.
Since January 2008, Sacramento County received 1085 sexual assault evidence kits. Only 335 of those kits were to be tested as requested by a law enforcement agency or the D.A.’s prosecutors, 719 of the rape kits in Sacramento County were never tested because there was no request or because the request for testing was canceled. It took three weeks and the help of eight staffers in the D.A’s office to gather this information.
The D.A.’s office couldn’t provide an exact count of the rape kits that remained untested, the ones left unprocessed, because there was no request made by investigators. News10 was told the computers are not equipped to offer that information.
That’s part of the problem. Many agencies don’t have the resources to assess the number of untested kits nor clear out any backlog.
“There is no coordinated way to capture those numbers,” California Coalition Against Sexual Assault’s Sandra Henriquez said. “The community would be concerned if we had those numbers.”
According to a recent study by the U.S. Justice Department, there’s no accurate count because 43 percent of law enforcement agencies don’t even have a computerized system for keeping track of forensic evidence.
Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said they collected 53 rape kits from January through October 2011. But, without pulling each individual case and doing a manual count, it was not easy to determine how many cases remain untested and how many will make it to the crime lab for testing.
RAPE SURVIVOR SPEAKS OUT
“Had mine been one of the untested ones in this day, I think I’d be incredibly frustrated,” Rape survivor Peggy Rex said. “That is the evidence that the crime occurred.”
Peggy Rex is an advocate of WEAVE, Women Escaping A Violent Environment, in Sacramento. She was raped 35 years ago when she was only 15.
“It was a stranger that came into our house,” said Rex.
She immediately went to get an exam done.
“I was taken to the emergency room by the sheriff’s [department.] My folks were out of town,” Rex explained.
Her rape kit was processed. The DNA collected went to a crime lab for testing and then was sent to a national database of known criminals to see if there was a match.
“Typically what they’re looking for is to see if they can develop a DNA profile of the alleged perpetrator,” Sacramento County Crime Lab Director Jeff Rodzen said.
Rex is now trained to help other women deal with the trauma of a sexual assault. She can help victims as they go through the rape exam. The exam can last up to three hours and be a very invasive process as doctors and nurses take numerous swabs and photographs.
“I didn’t know there were so many untested kits,” said Rex. “It’s discouraging to have the courage to go in, have the exam, be tested, and have your kit sit on a shelf.”
NEED FOR EXPANDED RAPE KIT TESTING
Some groups argue that every kit needs to be tested. If not, rapists can go un-convicted.
“We would probably see a great increase in number of convictions if we were able to test every rape kit,” Henriquez said.
CALCASA co-sponsored a bill with Assemblyman Anthony Portantino to require law enforcement to test rape kits. CALCASA believes having a perpetrator’s DNA in the national database could help prevent crimes in the future.
“I know we are stretched thin on resources. But I think we need to be clear where we put our resources to ensure our public safety,” Henriquez said.
RAPE KIT TESTING NOT ALWAYS NECESSARY
But the Sacramento County D.A.’s office and law enforcement said there are a number of reasons why every kit does not need to be tested. Sgt. Dean Bowen with the Sex Assault Bureau for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department said sometimes a victim doesn’t want to prosecute.
“If they tell us ‘Hey, I don’t want to move forward in this investigation, then this right here will never get tested,” Bowen said, gesturing to a rape kit recently gathered from a victim.
Sometimes the kit isn’t analyzed because the victim knows the suspect. Other times, the suspect admits to having sex with the victim.
“All the test is really going to do is show that one person had sexual contact with another person,” Sgt. Bowen said. “It doesn’t necessarily show that it was a crime.”
Sacramento County’s Assist. D.A. Albert Locher agreed.
“When both persons agree that a sex act took place, but the issue is whether or not there was consent, the time and expense spent on DNA testing sheds no light on that issue,” Locher said.
It costs as much as $1,500 to collect and process each rape kit. It takes time, money, and staffing. That’s tough when resources are limited said some law enforcement agencies.
“If you had unlimited resources, yes, it would be appropriate to scientifically test each kit,” CalState Los Angeles School of Criminal Justice and Criminalists Dr. Joseph Peterson said. “The reality is forensic science resources are very limited. They have to target those resources to cases where they could make the greatest difference.”
The growing demand for DNA testing has also made it tough for lab analysts. Meanwhile, some argue that DNA evidence is not the end all.
“It can be critical, but again in most of our cases, it’s the work of the detective, the footwork of the detective that’s going to get the conviction, not the DNA evidence,” Bowen said.
BACKLOG CLEARING SUCCESS STORY
But, one law enforcement agency has made it a priority to test every rape kit.
In 2005, Stockton Police Sgt. Andrew Hendricks reviewed 182 questionable rape cases. He discovered a backlog of 40 untested kits dating back a decade. Hendricks cleared out the backlog.
The police department has had each and every kit tested since then, whether or not the suspect is known. According to Hendricks, there are 500 to 600 rapes in Stockton every year.
“I believe it’s critical. We put this as a high priority in this department,” Hendricks said. “Last year, we conducted 74 sexual assault examinations. And, we had all 74 of those examinations tested at the Department of Justice lab in Ripon.”
Hendricks admits, the majority of sex assault exams come back with no finds whatsoever.
However, a closer look at Department of Justice data of arrest rates average, from 2007 to 2009, might support further rape kit testing:
- Sacramento County: 14%
- San Joaquin County: 32%
- City of Los Angeles: 28%
- New York City: 70%
In 2008, Los Angeles’s police department had a backlog of 7,000 cases. But thanks to grant funding, sending rape kits out to private labs to be tested and a change in priorities, the city was able to clear out its entire backlog within a three year period. In New York City, where the policy is to test every rape kit gathered, the arrest rate for rape cases is 70 percent.
According to Natasha Alexanko with Natasha’s Justice Project, the arrest rate is exceptionally high because New York City now tests every rape kit within 90 days of being received.
Alexanko’s rape kit sat untested for nine and a half years, nearly ranning out of the statute of limitations. It was finally tested and the perpetrator apprehended. Alexanko is now pushing to end the rape kit backlog problem and determine the number of untested rape kits.
VETOED CA BACKLOG BILL
Assem. Anthony Portantino authored a bill to tackle the backlog problem. The bill would have required 10 selected counties in California to count all their untested rape kits and then process each one as part of a pilot program. The bill targeted counties with arrest rates below 12 percent.
“It’s frustrating to know that a rapist could be walking free and a victim who suffered is further disrespected because a vital piece of evidence went untested,” Portantino said.
Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the bill in October. Several law enforcement agencies said it would cost too much and require too much work of the already taxed crime labs.
“It requires more education and resources,” Henriquez said. “In time, we’ll get there.”
For rape survivors like Peggy Rex, getting examined after a sexual assault is a critical first step towards healing. It’s also a step towards finding the perpetrator. She firmly believes getting that rape kit tested could be the key to cracking a case and getting a rapist off the street for good.
By Suzanne Phan, firstname.lastname@example.org