12,000 rape kits, untested

The LAPD continues to ignore evidence that could help prosecute sexual assaults.

Published April 1, 2009 10:22AM (EDT)

And now for something completely frustrating: While prosecutors across the country indict teens for taking topless pictures of themselves, police departments in Los Angeles ignore evidence that could help prosecute thousands of cases of violent rape.

Tracy Clark-Flory first wrote about the LAPD rape kits backlog in October, but since then the numbers have gotten even worse: Human Rights Watch reported Tuesday that more than 12,000 rape kits are sitting around untested in L.A. County police departments and crime labs. The kits (taken by an often excruciating, 4-6-hour process) are intended to help prosecute sexual assaults -- as HRW investigator Sarah Tofte writes on Women's eNews, the kits contain DNA and other evidence collected from victims' bodies and clothes immediately after the crime, and they have the potential to identify rapists, corroborate victims' accounts of assaults and exonerate innocent defendants. Of course, in order to serve those functions, the kits have to actually be used. Nearly 500 of L.A.'s untested kits are attached to cases that have passed the 10-year statute of limitations for rape in California, making it impossible to prosecute rapists even if they were to be identified. Thousands more kits have been destroyed untested.

Over-capacity crime labs are by no means unique to LA. According to a federal Census of Publicly Funded Crime Laboratories, crime labs across the country would need to increase their analyst staff by 73 percent to keep up with the need for DNA testing. Since 2004, Congress has allotted millions of dollars to help jurisdictions cut down their DNA backlogs, but the program doesn't stipulate just how the money should be spent. Rape kits, apparently, haven't made it to the top of L.A. police departments' priority lists.

The good news is that a model exists for jurisdictions that want to fix their DNA-testing systems. In 2003, New York City created a policy that ensures every booked rape kit is sent to a lab and tested within 60 days. Prosecutors and police created a special team to investigate rape kit DNA matches. As a result, the city has eliminated its rape kit backlog and seen an increase in arrest and prosecution rates for rape.

By Abigail Kramer

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