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article imageNew Mexico: Why 5,341 untested rape kits are a nationwide problem

By Megan Hamilton     Nov 18, 2015 in Crime
After repeated complaints from victim advocates about the burgeoning backlog in testing sexual assault evidence kits in New Mexico, the state's Department of Public Safety began surveying police agencies in order to find out how big the backlog really is.
They were shocked by the results.
Some 5,341 sexual assault kits that still remain untested for a criminal suspect's DNA are sitting in police department evidence rooms. That doesn't even include results from dozens of departments that haven't responded, The Albuquerque Journal reports.
There were 3,476 sexual assault kits listed as untested at the Albuquerque Police Department, according to computer database searches. However, no one has gone in and studied the evidence envelopes case-by-case.
At the Bernalillo County Sheriff's Office, there were 472 untested evidence kits, and statewide, the rest of the departments reported 1,393 untested kits. And, the only kits that were tallied were those in which a police report had also been filed.
How is evidence for sexual assault collected?
In New Mexico, most evidence is collected by trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, The Albuquerque Journal reports. SANE trained nurses usually work in community settings, rape crisis centers or the joint APD Family Advocacy Center.
If one of these nurses isn't available, emergency room nurses or doctors are also able to collect evidence and documentation.
What evidence is collected?
By swabbing portions of the victim's body, DNA evidence, including semen, blood, and saliva is collected to help identify the suspect and to prove that physical contact occurred. Clothing fibers, fingernail scrapings and hair may also be collected.
The victim's clothing, especially undergarments or clothing containing biological stains, may also be collected.
The victim's blood may be drawn in order to determine if bloodstains belong to the victim or the suspect.
Photographs of injuries suffered by the victim will also be taken.
New Mexico is not the only state that's buried in the backlog.
In Oregon, at least 5,000 untested kits are still stuck in police evidence rooms across the state, The Oregonian reports.
Florida police departments are saddled with a whopping 10,000 untested rape kits, The Tampa Bay Times reports. while Kentucky has a backlog of at least 3,000 and the Fayetteville Police Department in North Carolina destroyed 333 of the kits to make room for evidence, CNN reported.
In fact, the backlog is so serious that estimates say that at least 400,000 rape kits are sitting untested in labs across the country, according to the Department of Justice. Earlier this year the federal government invested $41 million in order to shrink that number and ensure the kits are tested.
Why is the backlog so huge?
Lack of funding may be the most crucial reason. It usually costs between $1,000 and $1,500 to test one rape kit, EndTheBacklog reports. Crime labs continually grapple with limited capacity, and as state and local law enforcement budgets shrink, untested kits have piled up nationwide.
• Crime lab resources are pushed to the limit, especially in recent years as they struggle to maintain sufficient funding and personnel. Advanced technology has also increased the demand for DNA testing, EndTheBacklog reports. Not only is there rape kit evidence, crime labs also receive DNA samples from hundreds to often thousands of crime scenes every year. This makes for turn-around times that can, in some cases, last for years.
• Police resources. In many cases, rape kits never make it to a crime lab; instead they spend years, and even decades, languishing untested in police storage facilities. Another facet of the problem is that law enforcement agencies frequently lack the technology to track untested kits as well as the personnel needed to ship or transport the kits to a crime lab in a reasonable amount of time. Compounding that, these agencies frequently lack the resources and staffing necessary for investigating and following up on leads that result from rape kit testing, EndTheBacklog reports.
Detective discretion can also play a key role behind the backlog. In the majority of jurisdictions, it’s entirely up to the officer assigned to the case as to whether rape kit will be sent for testing. Numerous factors play into this, including:
• How sexual assault cases are prioritized within a department. In many law enforcement agencies, other crimes receive top priority, and fail to dedicate the necessary time and resources to sexual assault cases. EndTheBacklog notes that law enforcement members frequently don’t believe and even blame victims of sexual assault instead of arresting a perpetrator.
• Will the case move forward? There can often be a lack of understanding about how trauma may affect a rape victim, and officers often misinterpret a victim’s reactions and choices immediately following the aftermath of the assault as being “uncooperative” or “not credible.” Apart from the biological and emotional impact of recovering from the trauma, survivors also may hesitate to talk to law enforcement due to fear of retaliation, being treated poorly by law enforcement, shame and not wanting family and friends to know about the assault.
• Is the identity of the suspect known? Many jurisdictions only use test kits if the identity of the perpetrator isn’t known in the hopes of identifying the suspect through DNA evidence.
• EndTheBacklog notes that the significance of rape test kits go far beyond the value of merely identifying an unknown suspect. These tests provide law enforcement with the ability to confirm a suspect’s contact with the victim, corroborate the victim’s account regarding the attack, link unsolved crimes to a repeat offender, and exonerate an innocent person. By testing every rape kit that’s booked into evidence, this provides greater access to justice for survivors and also sends the message to perpetrators that they will be prosecuted for their crimes.
Rape kits were definitely instrumental in bringing one serial rapist to justice after he terrorized New Mexico women for years, The Albuquerque Journal reports here.
Known as the "Ether Man," he would break into homes and place an ether-soaked rag over women's faces, causing them to pass out while he sexually assaulted them.
Convicted serial rapist Robert Howard Bruce.
Convicted serial rapist Robert Howard Bruce.
YouTube screen grab KRQE
There were the usual victim interviews and sketches by police artists, but DNA evidence gleaned from rape kits and entered into the FBI's CODIS system are what finally led to the arrest of Robert Howard Bruce.
Years before Bruce's arrest, Bernalillo County prosecutors decided to keep the case alive by filing an indictment against a rapist they named "John Doe."
John Doe's DNA was entered into the CODIS system, and, nearly 10 years later, it was found to match Bruce's DNA. His DNA had been entered into the CODIS system after his arrest in Colorado after he allegedly tried to kill a Pueblo, Colo. police officer and plead guilty to charges of criminal attempt to commit sexual assault and first-degree burglary in Pueblo. Bruce has also been convicted and sentenced in conjunction with several rapes in Oklahoma, NewsOK reports.
Had the sexual assault kits not been processed by the Albuquerque Police Department's crime lab, Bruce might be still stalking the streets.
More about New mexico, Rape kits, sexual assault kits, untested rape kits nationwide problem, Backlog
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