States struggle to tackle backlog of untested rape kits

Nationwide about 400,000 rape kits remain untested, according to the Department of Justice

In Tennessee, Meaghan Ybos, a victim of rape, has been crusading for legislation to address the backlogs for several years.
AP Photo/Adrian Sainz

With possibly hundreds of thousands of rape kits untested across the country, a number of states are proposing legislation to address backlogs that in at least one case dates back nearly three decades.

In Memphis, Tenn., alone, there are more than 12,000 untested rape kits, going back to the 1980s, according to the New York–based Rape Kit Action Project, which has been tracking the backlogs nationwide. In Texas the group has found about 16,000 untested kits collecting dust in police evidence rooms.

In Cleveland, Ohio, there are about 3,000 kits awaiting testing, and in Detroit, more than 11,000 are backlogged, according to NPR.

Nationwide, the Department of Justice estimates, 400,000 rape kits have gone untested. Last year Congress recognized the backlog of untested rape kits as a national problem in passing the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act, or SAFER, which seeks to provide data on the number of unsolved rape cases awaiting testing and establish better standards for the tracking, storage and use of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases.

The federal government is providing funding to help cover the costs for testing the kits, which usually contain swabs, evidence envelopes and information sheets detailing the examination. They cost at least $500 to test, a process that involves several steps, including determining whether there's sufficient material from which a subsequent DNA test may derive a reliable sample.

At the state level, Tennessee is among at least 17 states with proposals that range from requiring law enforcement agencies to inventory their rape kits to analyzing them within a certain amount of time. Three states — Colorado, Illinois and Texas — have passed laws that mandate a statewide accounting of untested rape kits.

Most of the other states' proposals favor the inventory measure, which would require all law enforcement agencies that store rape kits to count the number of untested ones. Rape Project spokeswoman Natasha Alexenko estimates there are about 400,000 untested kits nationwide.

"Until we enact this kind of legislation where we're counting them, we really have no idea," said Alexenko, a rape victim whose kit was finally tested after nearly 10 years. Her attacker was arrested after a DNA match was found.

Other proposed state legislation includes the elimination of a statute of limitations in rape cases.

In Ohio, a bill was proposed last year in part to deal with the flood of DNA matches from rape kits that Cleveland police finally began submitting. Some of those kits went back decades. 

The bill, which would eliminate Ohio's 20-year statute of limitations in rape cases, has stalled after concerns by prosecutors and defense attorneys about the potentially broad impact of such legislation.

But sponsors of the Ohio bill argue that eliminating the 20-year window to prosecute cases would allow more victims to come forward and prosecute their rapists, according to Cleveland's The Plain Dealer

CLICK FOR MORE: In October, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton signed an executive order to have all backlogged rape kits tested.
Greg Campbell/Getty Images

In Memphis, rape victim Meaghan Ybos has been crusading for years for legislation to address the backlogs in her state. She was 16 years old when she was sexually assaulted in her suburban home in 2003. She underwent a forensic rape exam but never heard anything else about her kit.

In 2012 she was watching the local news and learned police had arrested a suspected serial rapist in the neighborhood where she lived.

"I just knew it was the same person," said Ybos, who called police, told them about her assault and persuaded them to reopen her case. Her rape kit was eventually examined, and the suspect's DNA and that in her kit matched. The suspect pleaded guilty in her case and is currently incarcerated.

But Ybos, who is also supporting a proposal to lift Tennessee's eight-year statute of limitation on rapes, said it shouldn't have taken her that long to get justice.

"They never tried to process it until I called ... and asked them," she said of her rape kit.

A spokeswoman for the Memphis Police Department recently told The Associated Press that she couldn't comment about the backlog because the department is in the middle of litigation concerning a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of women whose rape kits haven't been tested.

But when asked about the situation at an event earlier this month, Memphis Mayor A.C. Wharton didn't mince words.

"We had a systemic failure here," he said of the backlog.

In 2003 the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation received a federal grant for more than $3 million to test rape kits. TBI spokeswoman Illana Tate said that the agency solicited kits from all law enforcement agencies in Tennessee but that she didn't know exactly how many were submitted.

Wharton has asked the Memphis City Council for a million dollars to help with the backlog. He said a little over 2,000 of the kits have been sent to laboratories and it could take up to five years for all the kits to be tested.

Memphis, like other cities, is operating on a tight budget. Its police and fire officials haven't been able to get new training classes because of the city's strapped finances. But Wharton said he's determined to get the money needed to address the city's backlog, even if it means reaching out to philanthropic groups for donations.

"Every day that a sexual assault kit sits untested represents justice delayed," he said.

Tennesee state Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican and chairman of the Council of State Governments, is the sponsor of the inventory measure in Tennessee. He says he believes there are other municipalities in the state experiencing backlogs.

"We've got to quantify the magnitude of this problem," he said. "We know that Memphis has somewhere in excess of 12,000 untested forensic evidence kits, but we need to know how many other local law enforcement authorities may have similar backlogs."

Another Tennessee proposal would require that law enforcement agencies submit rape kits to the TBI within 10 days of receipt and that they be analyzed within six months. However, that measure could be costly and is unlikely to pass.

"If the proposal is passed where TBI has to return kits in six months, we would need to double our manpower and require new buildings to accommodate new hires and equipment," Tate said.

Tennessee state Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a co-sponsor of the TBI proposal, said some type of legislation needs to be passed to address the backlogs because, in addition to rape victims, there are individuals who have been falsely accused of rape and need the kits tested to be exonerated.

"They could have been incarcerated while waiting for the evidence to clear them, or maybe they pled down to a lesser charge just to get out of jail," said the Memphis Democrat.

Alexenko said the inventory proposal is more likely to pass in Tennessee and other states because it "creates a dialogue" between law enforcement agencies and city officials to begin to try to address the problem.

"Each rape kit represents a human being whose body was a crime scene," she said.

Al Jazeera and The Associated Press

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