Cities Confront Long-Neglected DNA Evidence in Rape Cases

With about 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide, officials at the federal, state and local levels are devoting new attention and money to reducing the backlog.
by | February 11, 2015

President Obama's message about rape and domestic violence at the Grammy Awards was just one aspect of the administration's effort to combat these issues.

The president's budget calls for $41 million in grants for local governments to combat sexual assault. That amount would match a new appropriation approved by Congress in December, which was largely designed to help clear up the backlog of rape kits that have not been tested for DNA evidence.

An estimated 400,000 rape kits await testing nationwide, including thousands each in cities such as Detroit, Dallas, Memphis and Cleveland. But, after years of neglect, prosecutors and local officials are making a concerted effort to take advantage of evidence that's been sitting on the shelf.

"Of all the rape kits that are collected, only 6 percent in the Salt Lake Valley result in any kind of legal action," said Kyle LaMalfa, a member of the Salt Lake City Council.

He sponsored an ordinance last year requiring law enforcement to test all rape kits within two weeks. Similar laws have been passed in other cities and states such as Texas and California.

"Even a woman who goes through a four-hour rape kit exam only had a 6 percent chance of seeing some kind of justice," LaMalfa said. "That situation was unacceptable in our minds."

Addressing the issue is only fair to the women who have been traumatized by assault and then spent hours having their bodies combed for evidence, LaMalfa said, but it's also beneficial from a law-enforcement standpoint. Identifying perpetrators can help resolve not only the rape cases in question, but may lead to prosecution for other offenses as well.

"We know offenders are repeat offenders, so when we find someone, there will be multiple offenses to prosecute," said Bobbie Villareal, executive director of the Dallas Area Rape Crisis Center. "We can clear up a lot of cases this way, and we can make our community safer."

For that reason, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. pledged as much as $35 million last November help other communities clear up their testing backlogs. After New York City adopted a universal testing policy and worked to clear up its own backlog a dozen years ago, the arrest rate in rape cases improved substantially.

Vance's unusual move to offer funding to other jurisdictions was prompted by the knowledge that offenders don't stay in one place. Rapists identified in an initial round of rape-kit testing in Detroit last year turned out also to be suspects in other rape cases in half the states nationwide. "From California to New York, expanding the DNA databank helps every jurisdiction across the country seek justice and keep residents safe," Vance said in announcing his program.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. pledged $35 million in November to help other communities eliminate their untested rape-kit backlogs. (AP/Julie Jacobson)

Money, or lack thereof, is one big reason rape evidence had been collected, but neglected. Testing the kits costs at least $500 apiece. "As government agencies struggle with funding reductions, it was just something that was easy to brush aside," said Margaret Tallet, chief community engagement officer for the Michigan Women's Foundation.

The foundation is working with Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy in a high-profile effort to raise $10 million in private funds to test the 11,000 rape kits found in a Detroit police warehouse back in 2009.

As Tallet notes, testing costs are just the beginning. Each new case leads, on average, to 43 hours of additional investigation prior to indictment, said Joe Frolik, director of communications and public policy for Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Timothy McGinty.

McGinty's office has opened and assigned 2,191 cases as it works through its backlog of 4,700 rape kits. As of Monday, 249 defendants had been indicted, leading to 69 convictions thus far.

In Cuyahoga's case, the state of Ohio is paying for the testing and is also helping to augment the team of investigators assigned to the effort. The county decided late last year to fund 13 investigators to handle the backlog and has since received a grant from the state to build up the squad to a total of 30.

"It's a big commitment," Frolik said. "It is a substantial amount of money, but we feel that if we can get these people off the streets, it's a good and wise use of public money."