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New York Times: Rape evidence backlog

Published June 28, 2014 9:43 pm

The New York Times
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The failure of police departments around the country to test and analyze evidence connected to sexual assaults shows contempt for victims, public safety and justice. Medical personnel collect saliva, semen, blood, hair and other DNA evidence from victims after an attack in so-called rape kits. These kits, however, often sit unopened for years in police evidence rooms or public crime labs.

Experts say the number of kits awaiting analysis and entry of the DNA profiles into state and national databases — a crucial step for solving cases and identifying other crimes committed by an assailant — is likely well over 100,000.

Prompted by this terrible record, congressional Republicans and Democrats have thrown their support behind a new federal grant program proposed by President Barack Obama to support comprehensive efforts by communities to process untested rape kits and investigate and prosecute the cases.

At the end of May, the House approved an appropriations bill for the Justice Department and other agencies containing $41 million for the program — $6 million more than Obama sought in his budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. The appropriations committee in the Senate has included the same level of funding in a similar spending bill, but earlier this month that bill became stalled in the full Senate over unrelated issues.

Leaders in both chambers, on both sides of the aisle, must find another vehicle to finance the rape kit testing program if it remains blocked in the Senate or if the House and Senate negotiators are unable to settle on a final bill.

Not taking action would be disastrous for public safety. Five years ago, for example, more than 11,000 unprocessed kits, some of them a decade old, were discovered at the Detroit crime lab. When the first 2,000 were tested, more than 100 serial rapists were identified. To date, eight men have been sent to prison, and charges have been lodged against 61 others, who are now awaiting trial. The proposed grant program could help Detroit, a bankrupt city, complete the job, and assist other jurisdictions with big backlogs, like Memphis, Houston and Cleveland.

Congress approved a law in 2004, the Debbie Smith Act, that was promoted as an effort to reduce the rape kit backlog at public crime labs, but much of the funding has been used for other purposes, like lab improvements or testing evidence in non-rape cases.

That law was changed last year to allow jurisdictions to use money allotted under the act to inventory and count untested rape kits still in police custody that have not made it to a lab. However, the change did not address the need for funding that is dedicated solely to testing those rape kits, investigating leads and conducting rape prosecutions.

A federal investment of $41 million is not enough to test all the rape kits in police custody, but spent effectively it could make a dent in the national backlog and provide resources to cold-case teams that need help bringing predators to justice.