What to expect from clearing the rape kit backlog

As you know, two weeks ago Mayor Parker announced that the city would allocate funds to clear the backlog of rape kits, thus bringing to a conclusions one of the city’s longest-standing issues. City Council has now unanimously approved the plan, in which out of state labs will provide the analyses. What was fascinating to me about this was the statistics cited at the end of the story:

Council members C.O. Bradford and Helena Brown raised concerns about the cost of bringing experts in from Utah and Virginia to testify, should cases resulting from testing the backlog go to trial.

Parker said the $4.4 million should cover all needed testimony, including that related to the active cases being outsourced, adding the city has farmed out DNA testing and flown experts here to testify for years. Even if the initial amount falls short, she said, there are several million dollars left in the budget set aside to tackle the backlog.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said both labs awarded contracts Wednesday have cleared other jurisdictions’ backlogs, and reported that expert testimony was required in fewer than 1 percent of such cases. Slinkard said cases also may be reopened and adjudicated without a need for expert testimony.

Parker said she expects few local cases to be affected by the testing of the backlog, because many have long since been closed or adjudicated, whether because other evidence was sufficient to bring charges, the victim was not willing to prosecute, or other such factors. The hit rate was “incredibly low,” she said, when other cities tackled their own backlogs.

New York City exonerated one defendant after working through its 16,000-kit backlog, first identified in 1999. As of 2009, the testing had produced 2,000 hits matching DNA profiles in law enforcement databases and 200 investigations, arrests or prosecutions, according to the Joyful Heart Foundation, which works to raise awareness of sexual and domestic violence.

Los Angeles’ backlog of 6,132 rape kits, made public in 2008, produced about 1,000 hits in law enforcement databases, according to the Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles police officials in 2011 estimated the number of arrests generated by the backlog testing in the “dozens.”

First, I had no idea there had been such backlogs in other cities, though I suppose I shouldn’t be too surprised by that. Second, I had no idea that so few of the kits led to some kind of action. I don’t know what I should have expected, but whatever that is, it wasn’t this. To be clear, this is a worthwhile and absolutely necessary thing to do regardless, and the Council’s unanimous vote of approval shows the support for doing this. HPD also has a bunch of DNA samples from property crime cases to process, and getting all of this done sets the stage for better and more timely handling of this evidence going forward. I just thought this was interesting.

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6 Responses to What to expect from clearing the rape kit backlog

  1. nonsequiteuse says:

    I wonder what the hit rate would look like if there were a nationwide database? How many of the samples being tested will be from 1-time offenders within whatever jurisdiction this particular database covers (Harris County? Texas? Some other network of coordinating databases?) My cursory google doesn’t turn up anything about the database this data will feed.

    The sad fact this hit rate reveals is how many people commit this crime & don’t get caught (i.e. don’t get their DNA linked to their identity in a crime database). That’s one reason clearing this backlog is so vital. The more victims of sexual assault feel they can trust that the legal system gives them some shot at justice, the more likely they are to report & submit to the exam necessary to procure DNA for testing. Clearing the backlog won’t solve the whole problem, but it is a critical step.

    I’d like to think that knowing their DNA might be entered into the database now would be a deterrent to people who would commit this crime. If only.

  2. nonsequiteuse says:

    OK, as a follow-up, an interesting article about untested rape kits in Ft. Collins, Colorado. Interesting because (1) it mentions a national database, and (2) because of the dangerous attitude of the police that they not check DNA in a case when the assailant is known.

    While it would seem reasonable, perhaps, to say if the assailant is known, they need not test, the differentiation between stranger-rape and acquaintance rape is a dangerous one to consider. If a person is willing to ignore a lack of consent with one person that assailant knows, but the DNA doesn’t go into the database, we might not be able to discover that the person has, multiple times and with multiple known partners ignored a lack of consent and committed multiple rapes. One type of rape isn’t any more or less important (or dangerous, or worthy of investigation) than any other, and treating the rape kits differently sets up a troubling dynamic for which cases should be considered important.


  3. Steven Houston says:

    The way the problem originated might solve some of your questions, countrywide at that. Initially, there were no databases for DNA and testing cost over $5k for a complete workup on a single rape kit. Because Houston and other large cities had so many sexual assaults of one form or another, developing standard operating procedures went through a tremendous amount of discussion. One large part of that discussion was what to do if both complainant and suspect admitted to having sex (date rape or otherwise acquainted parties); the need to spend thousands of dollars to prove facts already in evidence considered crazy by most. Scarcity of funds was even more prominent back in the 80’s than now, hence how this all started.

    Then, without a national or local database to compare to, it was considered unwise to test every kit and catalog the results since there was no way to compare any large amounts of data. This led to testing being done when other evidence pointed to a particular suspect, either to confirm or deny their role in a case. These types of cases amounted to most of what became the backlog early on, a committee formed to approve the expense of each kit to potentially be tested. So unless you had a known suspect identified by the victim as corroborated by other physical evidence, getting a rape kit tested was very difficult in the 80’s and early 90’s.

    After that, the sheer magnitude of the problem, and contrary to what you might hear, this was common across the country, when many statute of limitations were pushing such tests out of likelihood given the cost versus what could be done with the evidence. This is a key point because even if a test confirms someone had sex, it does not prove anything beyond that such as consent. One of the darker aspects of the committee and how things were picked to test involved giving lie detector tests to victims, a great many failing basic questions that would substantiate their credibility or reliability to prosecute (whatever one might think, a District Attorney is not going to make a strong case when a hooker claims rape after a John doesn’t pay her, as one example).

    By the time nationwide databases came into being, the costs had come down but with so many backlogged cases and the usual bureaucratic red tape built up from years of perfunctory “no” to marginal evidence, it literally took the city of Houston a huge scandal to get things moving. The crazy thing is that for all the bluff and bluster, nearly every test ever handled by their former crime lab was proven to be accurate and verified, a minute portion of cases coming back with inconclusive results or evidence being lost preventing retesting. Something you don’t read about in this regard is that while DNA is great for very narrow facts, it is poor for most other things as it cannot establish motive or answer all the usual questions one might have. On a related note, many communities simply did not even gather such evidence until well after cities like Houston had been doing so for years, knowing that there would be a political fallout no matter how the subject was tackled.

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