When Justice Is Deferred: Why Are There Thousands Of UNTESTED Rape Kits In Police Storage Lockers Across The Country?

February 20, 2013  |  

As if the trauma from a sexual assault wasn’t enough, here is a story of how our judicial system is wronging these victims again through forcing them to wait for years, sometimes decades, for their rape kits to be tested.

From Jezebel:

We’ve spent a fair amount of time chronicling the battle of bada** Kym Worthy, the Wayne County, Michigan prosecutor who stumbled on over 11,000 untested rape kits at a former police storage warehouse back in 2009, the lack of funding Worthy was faced with even after arranging for a federal grant of one million dollars, and the emotional trauma incurred once again by the women who must revisit their rape, in some cases languishing a decade for lack of DNA evidence.”

For those unaware: a rape kit is a collection of evidence, including hair, clothing and DNA samples, taken from a rape victim’s body after a sexual assault has been reported. The key word here is “evidence” and that’s right, vital evidence, which could lead to the prosecution of criminals has been sitting untested on police lock-up shelves for years. The article goes on to say the following:

Yesterday Worthy appeared on NBC’s Rock Center with Brian Williams to discuss the progress in Detroit as well as its influence on the rest of the nation, whose attention have now been drawn to their own backlog of untested rape kits, each of which costs between $1,200 and $1,500 to test. So far, 600 of the Detroit kits have been tested, and prosecutors have discovered evidence of no less than 21 serial rapists. While his DNA sat on the shelf from 2002 to 2008, untested, one convict, Shelly Brooks raped and murdered five women. (Writing that actually made me nauseous.)”

Well, reading that has given me the same nauseous feeling in my stomach too. As noted by Worthy in the NBC interview, which is embedded in the Jezebel article, what is happening in the Detroit criminal justice system, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. All across the country, there have been reports that collected forensic evidence in the thousands remains untested on the shelves of police departments and in crime labs.

 In Ohio:

“Police agencies across Ohio have sent more than 2,300 untested rape kits to a state crime lab for testing that could potentially help solve hundreds of sexual assault cases, some dating back decades.”

“The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reports its analysis of data from the Ohio attorney general’s office indicates police departments statewide could face about 850 potential cases resulting from DNA matches when all currently submitted kits are tested.”

“Attorney General Mike DeWine encouraged Ohio’s nearly 800 law enforcement agencies to clear their testable sexual assault evidence off shelves in December 2011 after media reports said many kits remained in storage.”

And in Illinois:

Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart said 51 sexual assault kits found in an evidence room at the Robbins Police Department were being sent to Illinois State Police for investigation. “The victims should know they will have their cases heard, and they will be treated like they should have been treated,” Dart said at a news conference Tuesday night. “My goal is to bring justice to these folks.” Dart said the untested kits, some dating back to 1986, were found several weeks ago on a shelf in the Robbins Police evidence room. Also found was a barrel of about 55 guns that were never sent to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to trace their original ownership.

And these separate accounts are just from the last week. In fact, the backlogging of rape kits by local crime labs appears to be a longstanding problem, which has been slow to gain resolution. According to a CBS News article from 2010, with the exception of New York and Pennsylvania, most of the 16 cities/states polled reported an excess of hundreds, if not thousands, of untested rape kits. And according to Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network (RAINN), which is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, a Justice Department report from 2001 had shown that DNA evidence from more than 32,000 unsolved rape and murder cases was never submitted to crime labs for analysis. And a more frightening statistic from this CBS News article from late last year estimates that between 180,000 and 400,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide.

Lack of funding and under-resourced crime labs were the primary reasons cited for why so many kits remain untested. However, as reported by the New York Times, in Texas, where a recent bill required law enforcement agencies to audit the number of untested rape kits in their evidence rooms, the law was met with resistance from some law enforcement agencies, who worried that force testing would clog an already congested justice system. So far, over 15,000 untested kits were discovered and the audit is nowhere close to being completed. However, Texas lawmakers are banking on the passage of the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act, which passed in Senate last week and could help free up federal dollars to actually get these kits tested.

Outside of the funding issue, for me, it just makes good sense that the testing of these kits should become of high priority simply for the fact that the DNA evidence collected can not only help law enforcement agencies close existing unsolved cases, but also prevents future assaults, aka got-damn crimes, from ever occurring (no telling how many serial rapists are walking around free all because the evidence to convict them remains locked away in some police agency’s storage locker). But in a country, where the legitimacy of rape still remains confusing to some, it is clear that good sense isn’t always common. Heavy Sigh. 

Anyway, for those interested in supporting D.A. Worthy and the Detroit Crime Commission’s efforts to get the backlog of rape kits tested – and more importantly, helping sexual assault victims in Detroit receive overdue justice – please consider donating here.

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