Untested Rape Kits in TX

[TW for sexual violence]

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised at news like this but I admit that I still am.

From the Texas Tribune:

In police departments across Texas, tens of thousands of rape kits have been sitting on the shelves of property storage rooms for years, the result of strained budgets, overworked crime labs and a law enforcement philosophy that rape kits are primarily useful as evidence if a stranger committed the assault. Victims’ rights advocates and some lawmakers say they will work to pass legislation this year to take all of that evidence out of storage and create a DNA database that would help track rapists and perhaps even identify those who have been wrongly convicted. State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, is preparing a bill that would require police departments to test all rape kits in their possession and every one they get in the future. “I think we owe it to every person who has been raped,” Davis said.

Officials at big-city police departments say they are working to reduce the backlog of rape kits in their evidence rooms and to test evidence from unsolved cases. But processing each of the tens of thousands of rape kits from as far back as the 1980s — the total number is not known — is, they say, unrealistic. Also, testing the hundreds of kits that each metropolitan police department receives every year would take much more money, equipment and staff than is currently available. (Davis has not established a price tag for her proposed legislation.) Nor is it clear, some police officials say, that DNA evidence in all cases would be useful to prosecutors. “It’s not reasonable, and it’s not an effective use of their investigators’ time or their labs’ time,” said Sgt. Elizabeth Donegan, who runs the sex crimes unit at the Austin Police Department.

In Houston, about 16,000 rape kits, some dating back decades, sit in the police department’s property room, said Irma Rios, assistant director of the department’s crime lab. Rios could not say how many had been tested. “There’s a portion that are never tested,” she said. “We don’t have the resources right now to test every single” rape kit that comes into the department.

The decision whether to test the DNA in a rape kit typically rests with the investigator. In most rapes, the victim knows her attacker, and the DNA evidence often goes untested. Generally, the question in those cases, Rios said, is not whether a sex act occurred but whether it was consensual.  In those instances, the DNA is not helpful for the prosecution — it can only confirm that two people had sexual contact.

Here’s some of the takeaway from this:

  • Tens of thousands (!!) of women in Texas have reported that they have been raped and have had the invasive procedure to collect data in order to create a rape kit.  And then the response of law enforcement is to put that on a shelf.
  • Metro police departments get HUNDREDS of kits each year.
  • Police officials and lab directors (note: not lawyers) believe these rape kits wouldn’t be useful for prosecution.

More on this from Jezebel (which has a series of links at the bottom of their post).

Jezebel points readers to a Marie Claire article about this nationwide problem:

None of which quite explains why hundreds of thousands of rape kits were among the forensic evidence from 542,000 criminal cases that the National Institute of Justice found lying unprocessed in police storage lockers and labs around the country as of 2003. Since then, efforts to cut the backlog have borne some fruit, but Congress estimates that more than 180,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide. [...]

A federal survey last year painted a sorry picture of the state of scientific awareness among the nation’s crime-fighters. The report, prepared for the National Institute of Justice, found that of 150,070 unsolved rapes over the past five years, 27,595 (or more than 18 percent) produced forensic evidence that was never sent to a lab. What’s more, nearly half of the police agencies surveyed said they were under the impression that they were not to submit such evidence without an identified suspect — the very purpose of seeking DNA matches. Astonishingly, the report noted, “Some law enforcement agencies are still not fully aware that forensic evidence can be used as an investigative tool and not just during the prosecution phase.”

The Marie Claire story points to this Human Rights Watch piece titled, “Testing Justice,” about the failure of testing rape kits in LA (from March 2009).

When you read things like this, you understand why women, already violated, would not want to subject their bodies to a rape kit and their sex lives to scrutiny.  What is the point?

This is incredibly sad.

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