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Clearing The Rape Kit Backlog Is Fraught With Obstacles

There are hundreds of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police storage throughout the U.S. And why they're not being processed doesn't have an easy answer.
May 17, 2015 at 12:21 PM ET
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Thousands of rape kit test result sit in lockers untested. — (Ted Soqui/Ted Soqui Photography USA/Corbis)

In 1993, Natasha Alexenko was brutally raped, robbed and sodomized at gunpoint in her Manhattan apartment building. After her attacker fled, Alexenko fought the urge to take a hot shower, and immediately went to the emergency room to start the process of catching him. Her body was a crime scene. The then-20-year-old Alexenko was poked, prodded, swabbed and penetrated for an arduous four hours until she was stripped of countless samples that could potentially identify her assailant, and bring him to justice. But as time passed, her rapist was not apprehended and the NYPD closed her case.

In fact, it was almost a decade before her rape kit was actually tested.

When the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office called Alexenko in 2003 to tell her that law enforcement had finally tested her kit, it had been just one of New York City’s 17,000 untested rape kits that were gathering dust, forgotten in a city storage facility for years. Since then, New York City became just one of two U.S. cities—the other being Los Angeles—to have cleared its rape kit backlog entirely.

After a concentrated push to test its way through the backlog in the early 2000s, New York City launched the John Doe Indictment Project, which sought to preserve the chance to prosecute rape suspects in cold cases where the 10-year statute of limitations was near. Alexenko’s assault was one such case. Prosecutors charged the DNA found in her kit with the crime, and four years later there was a hit in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)—the government’s massive repository of known offender DNA records—on the kit’s DNA profile. In 2008, her rapist, Victor Rondon, was tried before a jury and found guilty of eight counts of violent assault, including burglary, robbery, two counts of rape in the first degree, sodomy in the first degree, and sexual abuse in the first degree. He is currently incarcerated until 2057.

Today, Alexenko heads The Natasha Justice Project, one of the foundations lobbying for the testing of the thousands of old rape kits scattered throughout the country. There is no definitive number of untested kits—estimates range from 100,000 to 400,000 nationwide—but according to End The Backlog, a project launched by non-profit the Joyful Heart Foundation, that seeks to quantify and highlight the problem, some jurisdictions have tens of thousands of kits.

Memphis is currently testing its way through 12,347 kits. Detroit found 11,341 unprocessed kits in a storage facility in 2009. Houston and Las Vegas are tackling backlogs of 6,663 and 4,385 rape kits, respectively. And there are dozens of other cities with counts in the hundreds and thousands, and many more that don’t even know if they are sitting on massive piles of untested evidence.

But regardless of the actual number, the bottom line is that when rape kits go untested, rapists like Victor Rondon go free. “It is just such an ignored crisis,” says Alexenko. “I feel like not enough people in this country are aware of it, and the grave danger we put ourselves in when we are not utilizing this amazing investigative tool.”

Before the backlog problem can be solved, though, it’s important to understand why it exists. And a big issue is that there’s no one reason why these rape kits continue to go untested, or how the problem reached this magnitude. For one, a lack of understanding of the crime of sexual assault, and the perpetrators who commit these crimes, has been a major factor in the development of the backlog. In the past, many investigators were reluctant to test rape kits in cases where the victim knew their rapist, despite the fact that someone who raped an acquaintance may have other victims. The serial nature of the crime went misunderstood.

“I’m not certain why that differentiation is made,” says Alexenko. “You certainly wouldn’t investigate a murder differently if the perpetrator was known versus unknown. I’ve always felt that if you are not going to test a rape kit because the perpetrator is known to the victim, then why are you putting him or her through the process of a rape kit exam?”

But for many jurisdictions, it’s also a matter of cost and manpower. Many argue that they simply lack the resources to clear their backlogs.

Jim Markey worked for the Phoenix Police Department for 30 years and ended his tenure with more than a decade in the sex crimes unit. In 2000, Markey’s department received a funding grant of about $125,000; he fought to put the money toward clearing out the department’s rape kit backlog, and put together a cold case sexual assault team to tackle the problem. Markey initially thought that all of the evidence would be cleared and the cases closed after the 18-month grant ran out, but he quickly realized the true scope of the task at hand.

“Here we are 15 years later, and the department is still working those cases and still getting new unsolved cases. It is not a quick fix. It’s a long-term commitment,” Markey says.

Clearing a backlog is not a simple matter of testing kits and calling it a day. It costs an average of $1,000 to $1,200—sometimes as much as $1,500—to test a single rape kit, and that’s just the beginning of the process. According to Markey, when a sexual assault kit on a cold case is submitted, you’ll get a DNA profile about 50 percent of the time. Once a DNA profile is obtained that has the right number of genetic makers to qualify as a “quality sample” by FBI standards, and investigators are confident that it is from the offender, only about 30 to 40 percent of profiles get a hit in the CODIS database. And, if there is a match, investigators have to start a full case review and basically redo the investigation from start to finish.

“You have to determine if the profile makes sense with the case, and what piece of evidence it is attached to,” Markey explains. “Then you have to look at the investigation and see if there is enough of a narrative in the case, and that the victim was able to give enough information, to feel fairly confident that this is the suspect.”

Eventually investigators contact the victim and track down the suspect, from whom they have to obtain a confirmation sample of DNA to determine the validity of the hit, and from that juncture determine if there is enough evidence to prosecute.

“So there are a lot of costs involved, and a lot of manpower after you get that hit. We could test our way through all these kits, but the real question is whether or not we can prosecute our way through them,” Markey says.

To help combat these issues, in March the federal government announced—under its Sexual Assault Kit initiative—a $41 million investment to help support law enforcement agencies’ testing backlogged rape kits. In fall of 2014, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. also pledged $35 million in funding to help departments throughout the country eliminate their backlogs like New York City managed to do.

Says Rebecca O’Connor, Vice President for Public Policy of the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), a non-profit fighting to end the backlog: “It is a challenge of resources. It is a challenge of education, and why this matters and why we all need to step up. It is not just a matter of justice and finding answers for one survivor, but for multiple potential victims and for public safety on the whole.”

O’Connor argues that the key to solving the backlog is to demand collaboration between the federal government and state governments.

Progress is being made. More than 20 states have passed legislation, have pending bills or are in the process of drafting legislation that holds jurisdictions accountable for their rape kit backlogs. “At the end of the day, we need states and the federal government to partner around this because the federal government can’t just keep pouring money into it, and the state governments need to build infrastructure. I think that the pressure has to come from all facets,” O’Connor adds.

Of the cities that have finished or begun the daunting task, countless rape kit tests have resulted in charges, prosecutions and indictments. The clearing of New York City’s backlog resulted in 200 prosecutions throughout the city. Partial testing of Cleveland’s old rape kits has led to 209 indictments. There have been charges filed against 29 people in Houston, and 850 hits in CODIS after the Texas city tested more than 6,000 backlogged kits. And the rape kit testing in Detroit has resulted in 10 convictions and the identification of a staggering 255 potential serial rapists, with links to crimes committed in 30 states and Washington, D.C.

This week, O’Connor will attend a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, along with representatives from other organizations, with the goal of creating a plan to move forward, and highlight both successes and ongoing challenges. Of course, the ultimate goal is to end the backlog, and while the cause has garnered a great deal of publicity and support in recent years, it will no doubt be an uphill battle.

“You are in it for the long haul if you find you are in a jurisdiction with several hundred or several thousand kits backlogged,” Markey concludes.