Rape kits numbering in the tens of thousands nationwide wait to be tested. Test results don’t replace witness testimony and other evidence. However, DNA from rape kits is often instrumental in convicting the guilty and setting the innocent free. Yet a combination of factors keeps much of this evidence out of play.
In Cleveland, Ohio, untested rape kits became an election issue in the recent race for county prosecutor. Incumbent Timothy McGinty and challenger Michael O’Malley differed on the number of untested rape kits and debated the reasons behind the glut. No one denied the backlog of untested kits, though.
After 11 bodies were found in Anthony Sowell’s home in 2009, the Cleveland Plain Dealer began asking authorities how sex crimes were investigated in Cleveland. The Cleveland Police Department couldn’t tell them how many rape kits they had stored away. They didn’t know. The ball got rolling, though, and the police began to count.
Richard Cordray, the Ohio Attorney General at the time, called for consistent testing statewide. He said, however, that the CPD should only send “evidence that detectives, prosecutors and forensic scientists think will be most likely to provide leads.” Cordray’s successor, Mike DeWine, changed the policy. In 2011, DeWine said he wanted all the kits tested.
Proof of how important rape kit evidence is can be found in the results of DeWine’s policy change in Ohio. Over 10,000 untested rape kits were processed, and 3,664 matches were found in the national DNA database. Nearly 450 defendants in Cleveland were indicted.
The guilty aren’t the only ones affected by DNA evidence. The Innocence Project claims 337 post-conviction exonerations since 1989.
Rachel Dissell of the Plain Dealer says the CPD still holds thousands of rape kits, some dating back decades. In her column, she writes that the CPD has roughly 2,100 kits taken between 1989 and 1992. They also have rape kits from before 1989. Authorities had no estimated number of pre-1989 kits.
The paper jam isn’t only in Ohio. According to Steve Reilly of USA Today, 50 different bills have been introduced in 20 states. The bills have a number of different aims. Some are designed to standardize requirements for sending rape kits; many police departments choose which to send based on their own criteria. Other bills seek funding for testing. Costs vary, but the National Center for Victims of Crime puts the tab at roughly $1,000 per rape kit.
Another reason for the glut of rape kits is simple math: too many new kits coming in, too few hands to do the work, and test results that aren’t instantaneous. The FBI estimated 79,770 rapes reported in 2013. Those numbers are down from the previous two years. Still, the kits come in much faster than they can be tested.
According to the National Center for Victims of Crime, “crime labs often operate in a triage fashion because there is continually a large amount of evidence waiting to be analyzed and limited lab personnel to perform the tests.” Tensions can run high among victims who are told there’s a waiting list.
The tide of new kits seems never-ending. Houston’s KHOU 11 News I-Team made a disconcerting find. The city of Houston spent millions of dollars eliminating their backlog of untested rape kits. In 2015, former mayor Annise Parker said the problem had been solved. And now, a year later, they have a backlog again.
“Of the 333 backlogged kits,” the KHOU 11 report said, “234 of those have gone untested for more than three months.”
Dr. Peter Stout of the Houston Forensic Science Center said the lab needs a new facility, a new computer system, and more analysts. He also said the money exists to get what they need. He’s just waiting for the board of directors to allocate the funds.
But no one can say if the money will ever exist to have every rape kit tested, or even just to help the labs keep up.
[Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP]