Decades’ Worth of Rape Kits Are Finally Being Tested. Now What?

February 26, 2018

He wanted me to see the boxes. They were piled six or seven high, and there were so many stacks on the shelves it was hard to take them in all at once. The other aisles of the Virginia Beach Police Department’s evidence storage unit were filled with guns and knives, hard drives and cash piles — objects that had been used to do terrible things to people. But these boxes — rape kits — contained what was left on a person’s body when something terrible had already been done. “I wanted you to see that each one is a victim,” said Lt. Patrick Harris, who had brought me here. “Each one has a name and a story behind it.”

The stories, I knew, went like this: A woman said she was sexually assaulted. She was told that, to prove it, she would need to go to a room where she would be examined from the hairs on her head to the skin beneath her toenails. She was swabbed, plucked, prodded and photographed. When it was over, every bit of what had been taken off her body was slid into small bags, placed in one of these boxes and taped shut. Most likely, the woman assumed that her kit, full of potential DNA evidence, would be sent to a laboratory to be tested.

In the case of these kits, they were not. Today, the Justice Department recommends that all rape kits associated with a reported crime be submitted for DNA analysis. But up until just last year, there were no national requirements or guidelines on what to do with them. Most states had no laws dictating which kits should be tested, meaning every police department could have its own rules about what evidence to test, keep or throw away. Some even let individual detectives make those calls. What happened to a woman’s rape kit could depend not only on what state she was in, but which side of a county line she was on, or even who was on duty when she asked for help.

The results of this haphazard system have been well documented. In New York City, an estimated 17,000 kits went untested. In Houston, there were 6,000. In Detroit, Los Angeles and Memphis, there were more than 11,000 each. Over the past two decades, the “rape kit backlog” has been in the news so many times that now, slowly, the problem is being fixed across the country. Under pressure from activists and legislators, states and cities big and small are counting their kits and sending them to be tested. And then, they are beginning to quietly struggle with a far more complicated challenge: What happens once the kits come back?

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