Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s $35 million pledge to examine thousands of untested sexual assault evidence kits languishing in police departments nationwide reflects a major shift in how law enforcement views rape cases and kits, analysts say. Despite what women’s rights advocates say was a persistent culture of indifference, police departments across the United States are finally making it through their rape kit backlog.
“Certainly, there is an issue of rape culture,” Natasha Alexenko, founder of Natasha’s Justice Group, said. “We hear people say things like, ‘Well, women lie,’ or, ‘She’s doing it to get revenge.’”
But analysts say each time a suspect is convicted with the help of DNA evidence, it helps to break down the assumption that rape victims lie about their assaults, a long-held notion that may have kept some rape victims’ evidence kits from being DNA-tested.
The announcement that the Manhattan DA’s office would disburse millions of dollars to counties across the country that apply for the funds comes after Congress recently re-approved the Debbie Smith Act. The legislation, renewed through 2019, gives federal grants to state and local law enforcement agencies so they can expedite the testing of evidence kits from sexual assault cases.
The law is named for a woman from Williamsburg, Virginia, who was dragged from her home by a masked stranger and raped in 1989. The evidence from her sexual assault evidence kit was not tested until 1994, which helped the police almost immediately apprehend her attacker.
The funding from the Manhattan DA will help pay the $1,000 to $1,500 it can cost to DNA-test the evidence in each rape kit. The U.S. Department of Justice has estimated that there are some 400,000 untested kits nationwide.
There are 12,000 untested kits in Memphis alone, 11,000 in Detroit and 4,000 in Cleveland, according to statistics gathered by the Rape Kit Action Project, a collaboration between the National Center for Victims of Crime, Natasha’s Justice Project, and the Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN).
Rights advocates say they struggle to understand why such a staggering number of kits go untested, even after assault survivors go through a lengthy and uncomfortable physical exam to gather the forensic evidence.
Alexenko, of Natasha’s Justice Group, said there’s no single reason. It’s a combination of outdated technology, a lack of training, and the persistent belief that people may not be telling the truth about their rapes, she said.
In 1993, while still in college, Alexenko was robbed at gunpoint and raped in her Manhattan apartment. Although an evidence kit was prepared, DNA technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now and her kit wasn’t tested until nearly a decade later.
Then, Alexeko said, many jurisdictions didn’t always test rape kits when the accused rapist was an acquaintance. And if the offender was a stranger, as was the case with Alexenko, the DNA test results of a rape kit likely would not have been matched with the Combined DNA Index Systems (CODIS), a database of local and state DNA profiles collected from convicted offenders or crime scenes. Because rapists tend to be serial criminals, matching the DNA collected in a rape kit can draw connections to other cases.
In New York City, which accumulated a 17,000-case backlog between 2000 and 2003, matching the DNA resulted in 200 prosecutions, according to the District Attorney’s office. The arrest rate for rapes in the city, which now tests every rape kit for DNA evidence, jumped to 70 percent from 40 percent after the policy was adopted. That’s compared with a national average arrest rate for rapes of about one in four, according to RAINN.
After Alexenko’s case rape kit was finally tested in 2003, the DNA matched that of a suspect who was caught jaywalking in Las Vegas in 2007. He was convicted and is serving a 44-to-107-year sentence.
“The data doesn’t lie,” Alexenko said. “We see how it does make a difference.”
Some rights advocates have also blamed a lack of testing on what they call a culture of indifference about sexual violence, exemplified by the five New Orleans police detectives in the Special Victims Section — which investigates sex crimes, child abuse and domestic violence — who were accused Wednesday of mishandling cases in that city.
The detectives failed to write investigative reports for 86 percent of the 1,290 sexual assault or child abuse calls they were assigned to investigate from 2011 to 2013, according to The Times-Picayune newspaper. These included the case of a toddler who tested positive for a sexually transmitted disease, and another that involved a child who complained of abuse by a registered sex offender living in the same building, the newspaper said.
Karen Owen, executive director of Natasha’s Justice Group, said frequent leadership turnovers at police departments can also mean that policies to address backlogs don’t get implemented. “There’s just a million reasons, but now that we’re aware of it, we’ve got to take care of it,” she said.