By Nicole Stinson
Photo courtesy of James Tourtellotte.
Justice has been buried in bureaucracy for many sexual assault victims across the U.S., as thousands of untested rape kits are only now being discovered in police storage facilities.
Rape kits, also known as Sexual Assault evidence kits, are forensic medical examinations containing physical DNA evidence collected from rape victims.
“Experts estimate that there are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits in police and crime lab storage facilities throughout the country, the exact number remains elusive because the federal government does not track rape kit data,” Sarah Tofte, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, writes on Cleveland.com.
Many of these untested rape kits are the result of a backlog due to lack of funding and resources. However, Ilse Knecht, Deputy Director of Public Policy at the National Center for Victims of Crime believes there is a more sinister reason to consider.
“The kits that get to the labs are kits that law enforcement believed had some sort of value to them,” she tells BTR. “In the cases of Detroit, Memphis, Houston, and many other areas that we are discovering, there are kits that didn’t even make it to the lab.”
The term ‘backlog’, she explains, is often problematically used to refer to both the kits held up at the labs for testing and the ones that are sent to storage facilities untested. This is an issue because the ones that have been sent to the storage facilities have been sitting there for decades.
“We need to find out the reasons why certain kits were never tested,” she says.
The National Center for Victims of Crime has been investigating this question by studying the demographics of victims whose rape kits were left untested.
“What they are finding is that on kits that haven’t been tested are from the victims living on the margins of society. They were either working as prostitutes doing drugs, impoverished, or from the wrong part of town,” Knecht says.
Kym Worthy, the prosecutor for Wayne County responsible for investigating the untested rape kits in Detroit, also agrees.
“Rapes where the victims are prostitutes, for example, are often treated differently because they have less respect within the community. So when they are raped often the evidence is just thrown into storage.”
Worthy’s team, led by Assistant Prosecutor Robert Spader, initially discovered 11, 304 untested rape kits in Detroit. Of those she tells BTR, 2,000 have since been tested leading to 50 serial rapists being identified. However, she admits these kits were only found accidentally through another unrelated investigation.
Nancy O’Malley a prosecutor for Alameda County in California has been working on the 2,000 untested kits recently found in Alameda County, California in 2007.
In their investigation, O’Malley tells BTR, her team found that police often did not use DNA test kits when the victim said they knew the offender.
“However, people who sexually assault someone they know are just as likely to sexually assault someone they don’t know,” she continues. “We’re seeing this now where someone is in the database for raping their wife and police are now getting a cold hit on them because they rape a stranger.”
The database, O’Malley refers to is the National DNA Index System (NDIS) which is a part of the larger Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) created by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. This system, launched in 1998, attempts to create a national resource for law enforcement agencies through combining the local and state DNA databases.
Some states did not even go online with these databases until the 2000s, which also affects nationwide testing, says Knecht.
“When you had a kit with no suspect, back then there was really nothing police could do. Some had the foresight to keep the kits, some places destroyed them.”
Known backlogs of untested rape kits exist in California, Michigan, New Mexico, Illinois, Ohio, Rhode Island, Alabama, and at the top of the list – Texas with an estimated 14, 800 untested rape kits between Houston and San Antonio.
New York City eliminated its 16,000 untested kits in 2003. New York City may have eliminated their backlog, but its continued existence in other states is disheartening to victims.
“We already have a very low reporting rate for sexual assault and then victims get treated this way, it basically send the message why bother,” says Knecht.
“The victims I have worked with say that they felt let down by the system and they felt that what happened to them didn’t matter to criminal justice system.”
Undergoing a rape kit is a painful and long process for victims.
“The examination is a lengthy, invasive four to six hour process in which a medical professional swabs, plucks, and brushes into envelopes any DNA left in or on a rape victim’s body,” Tofte explains.
Through recent media coverage, victims are finally getting the support they need to put an end the backlog and change the policies surrounding the testing of rape kits through initiatives such as the Sexual Assault Victim’s Bill of Rights.
However, O’ Malley believes more still needs to be done at a lower level.
“The responsibility is on the crime lab directors. It’s not their life, it’s the victims and we need to stand up for their rights.”