The science of stopping sex crimes

In the quest to catch violent perps, rape kits can be a key ally – but only if they're tested

Only three states — Illinois, Texas, and Colorado — have enacted legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to provide an inventory of untested kit backlogs and then submit them for testing. Colorado is now debating a bill that would require the testing of all rape kits.

Tofte says similar measures could soon be considered in California, Ohio, and Michigan. Providing money to pay for testing is key to the success of such measures, she says. "One-time grants ... aren't always the best way."

The U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have included $117 million for DNA backlog reduction grants in 2014 spending bills; September 30 is the deadline for action by both chambers.

Nancy Dunlap, a former Minneapolis police lieutenant who supervised the sex crimes unit, says testing of DNA samples in rape cases is essential
Sean Smuda
Nancy Dunlap, a former Minneapolis police lieutenant who supervised the sex crimes unit, says testing of DNA samples in rape cases is essential

Legislation that would have appropriated the same amount of money to address the national backlog died in Congress in 2012.

IN MINNESOTA, "there is no state law that affects whether or not a sexual assault kit has to be tested," Redding says.

That leaves the issue in the hands of local jurisdictions.

DNA is collected from all convicted felons in Minnesota, he says, and from those charged with felonies but not convicted of any crime.

The rape kit backlog here was fueled by the same attitudes that make the crime a low priority for some in law enforcement now.

In sexual assault cases, Redding says, police officers sometimes conclude that victims will "make a lousy witness" because of their lifestyle, drug or alcohol abuse, or mental health problems.

"If they bothered to go find her after she makes a report," he says, "they would try to make contact, sometimes vigorously but often half-heartedly."

One thing has changed, he says: More women are visiting hospital emergency rooms after being raped and choosing to allow the collection of DNA samples.

The process can take hours. DNA left in or on a rape victim's body is searched for painstakingly and placed in sealed envelopes or boxes.

In 1977, Dr. Linda Ledray of the Minneapolis-based Sexual Assault Resource Service developed the concept of hospital-based Sexual Assault Response Teams and Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners to conduct post-rape exams and contact police if victims want them to do so.

The organization trains nurses, provides workshops for legal advocates and law enforcement, and helps communities across the country implement the programs.

Ledray says Minneapolis has made "incredible strides" in focusing on the needs of rape victims. She commends the police department for "having a sex crimes department and keeping it adequately staffed."

When rape victims come to hospitals, she says, "about a third initially do not want" to have DNA evidence collected, but ultimately most agree.

"The issue," she says, "is the ones we don't even get to come to the hospital."

And once victims do seek medical care, Ledray says, too often there's no trained professional to guide them through the process.

"There are only about 700 SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) programs throughout the U.S.," she says.

The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension conducts DNA testing on rape kits and has been improving its turnaround time.

In 2006, 621 tests were done in an average of 51 days. Last year, the average turnaround time was 33 days for the 857 rape kits it received.

IN 2009, Hennepin County received a two-year $494,433 grant from the Justice Department to research cold cases with DNA.

It reviewed evidence from two sources. The first group was 1,870 cases submitted for DNA testing to state labs or the Hennepin County sheriff's crime lab from 1991 to 2006.

Some of those cases were cold hits that had never been investigated or submitted for prosecution. Others were cases where a DNA profile had been developed but never matched to a convicted offender. The third category was cases where evidence samples had been submitted but never tested.

The other source of cases pursued under the grant came from a year-by-year review of all reported sexual assaults in Minneapolis from 1991 through 2007.

The thinking was that analyzing every assault would result in the best shot at solving cases with DNA testing and the process focused on cases where testing had never been done.

In all, 9,347 sexual assault cases were reviewed. Of those, 988 were identified as appropriate for DNA testing and ultimately, 574 rape kits were sent to private labs for testing.

The findings:

— 192 rape kits contained no semen or insufficient amounts of semen for testing.

— 334 DNA profiles produced no hits in databases of convicted offenders.

— 195 produced hits, 155 of them to convicted offenders.

Redding says those 155 links to offenders "speak volumes about recidivism." In many cases, he says, the offender had been convicted of auto theft or some other crime, but other cases against the same individual had been declined for prosecution.

"So what happened was that the new case was charged based on the hit, and the old case, which had previously been turned down, was also charged — the new case gave it new credibility."

Dunlap remembers thinking at the beginning of the process that it probably didn't make sense to test every kit in the backlog. She changed her mind.

"The more we looked at it, the more we agreed that every single kit should be tested with rare exception," she says.

In some cases, DNA testing helped solve robberies, homicides, and other crimes.

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