Rape Kit Test Backlog an 'Outrage'

It could take at least 4 years for Los Angeles to test all the rape kits it has.

March 29, 2009, 10:32 PM

March 29, 2009— -- Being raped is horrific enough, but for years victims have had to deal with another ordeal.

In many cities around the country the only way hospitals would collect the DNA evidence that is later used to identify and convict the rapist, was for victims to immediately press charges with the police.

Many victims who are traumatized after the attack and too afraid to press charges, after time change their mind.

One of those women was 21-year-old Sarah, who said she was raped by an acquaintance and did not have a rape examination because she was too afraid to press charges.

"I didn't want anybody near me," she said. "I didn't want anybody to know."

Two weeks later, when she decided to press charges, it was too late. A grand jury refused to indict her attacker. And prosecutors told Sarah that if she had that DNA evidence, the outcome probably would have been different.

Starting in January of this year, the obstacle for victims was eliminated.

Victims can now have their DNA evidence collected regardless of whether they decide to press charges, and the rape kits will be kept on file anonymously in case the victim changes his or her mind.

States are now required to pay for "Jane Doe rape kits," also known as anonymous rape tests, in order to continue to receive funding under the U.S. Violence Against Women Act.

Prosecutors say DNA evidence is essential in convicting rapists. It is not easy for victims to undergo the lengthy, invasive process of having that evidence collected, but they do it because they believe it will be used by police to catch the rapist.

A new report finds often it is not. An investigation by Human Rights Watch coming out this week found more than 12,000 untested rape tests collecting dust on police department shelves in Los Angeles County.

"Anyone who cares about giving justice to victims of sexual violence should feel outraged," said Sarah Tofte, an investigator with Human Rights Watch.

"When we realized how many untested rape kits were sitting in police storage, we felt like it was an incredible denial of justice for victims who had submitted to the collection of a rape kit in the hope that this evidence might help bring their perpetrator to justice," she said.

It costs about $1,000 to test a rape kit, money many cities don't have.

In 2004, the federal government provided funds to fix that. The city of Los Angeles got $4.4 million, but did not spend it all on rape cases because of insufficient lab capacity and administrative mishandling.

Untested rape kits mean rapists go free.

In one case in Los Angeles, a repeat sex offender brutally raped a mother in her own home, leaving significant DNA evidence. After a rape kit was collected from the victim, Los Angeles Police Department Det. Tim Marcia said he knew he was facing a delay of almost a year before the kit could be analyzed.

So he made the long drive from Los Angeles to a state crime lab in northern California with the hope of getting the evidence examined sooner.

Before the kit could be examined, the attacker raped two more women, including a child.

When the lab finally made a hit, the suspect was identified as Christopher Cardwell, who had served 18 years for another rape.

Marcia said the "forensic evidence played a vital role in finding Cardwell guilty for these crimes."

The LAPD says it hopes to clear its backlog by 2013. According to department officials, they are now testing an average of 500 kits a month.

"We're sorry, absolutely embarrassed by this whole issue," LAPD Commander Patrick Gannon said. "It is my responsibility and the responsibility of the Los Angeles Police Department to ensure that we get a handle on this, that we get every kit, to ensure that every kit is analyzed."

Eliminating the backlog of rape kits has been proven to lead to arrests. For example New York City faced a backlog of 17,000 untested kits. After police analyzed the rape kits they had collected, they were able to put 140 rapists behind bars.

For information about reducing the risk of sexual assault and for other important resources visit the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) Web site.

RAINN also provides information about how to preserve DNA evidence following an assault. Click HERE to read more.