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Ending rape kit wait puts price on justice

By Harriet Ryan
Court TV

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(Court TV) -- The small white boxes, sealed in plastic by hospital technicians and labeled with a case number by detectives, can be found stacked in refrigerators in almost any police department or medical examiner's office in the country.

They are untested rape kits, and they contain semen, hairs, blood or other biological material left behind by a rapist. But in hundreds of thousands of instances, this DNA evidence is never analyzed by a forensic lab and remains in police basements and coroner's back rooms.

"These are not numbers, these are lives," said Debbie Smith, a Virginia woman whose rape kit languished for six years before being tested. "It's so unfair to put a victim through the evidence collection -- at best a very invasive process -- and then not to do anything with it."

The reason for this inaction is money. Lab analysis of the kits, which are gathered in emergency rooms soon after victims report a rape, can cost $1,000. According to the Department of Justice, an estimated 350,000 kits await testing around the country.

But last month, at the prodding of sexual assault victims' advocacy groups, President Bush proposed spending $1 billion during the next five years to eliminate the backlog and improve the way DNA is used to solve crimes. The issue already had support in Congress, where bipartisan groups in the House and Senate have proposed a bill named after Smith that provides $600 million for local testing and additional forensic training for law enforcement.

The focus on the kit backlog comes at a time when the rate of rapes is at its lowest in decades. But even with the falling crime rate, one in six American women have been victims of rape or attempted rape, and 84,000 rapes occurred in the United States in 2001 alone. To many victims, the existence of the kit represents hope in an eventual conviction.

"To me, that kit held my life. I couldn't go forward with my life until my case was solved and I knew that the best chance of solving my case was in that kit," said Smith.

Until recently in many areas, priority in testing kits was given to "suspect cases," or cases in which the police investigation focused on one person. In those cases, investigators asked lab technicians to compare the DNA in the rape kit with the genetic profile of the suspect. Departments saw little reason to test rape kits of "non-suspect" rapes because there was no alleged assailant to match to the DNA in the kit.

That changed with the advent of state DNA databases, as well as CODIS, the national computer database of convict DNA. Now, labs can determine the rapist's DNA from the kit and then run that profile through CODIS to see if it matches any of the 1.4 million offenders in the database. DNA from rape kits alone can also reveal the existence of a serial rapist even if his identity remains a mystery.

In Smith's case, the man who raped her at her home in 1989 was a total stranger. He threatened to return and kill her if she went to authorities, but her police officer husband insisted she report the crime and have a rape kit done.  But with no suspect, the kit became part of Virginia's backlog until 1995 when a forensic scientist at the state lab tested the kit and eventually matched it to the genetic profile of a convict serving time for an unrelated crime. He was later convicted in her rape.

"I was scared to death that whole time that he was going to come back and kill me. It was not if, but when he was going to do it," Smith said. "I lost six years of my life."

The president's billion-dollar proposal, introduced last month by Attorney General John Ashcroft, would also include money to test the estimated 500,000 to 1 million convicts whose DNA has not yet been added to CODIS.

New York City is one locality that has succeeded in reducing its testing backlog. In October 2000, the police department had more than 16,000 untested rape kits sitting in its Queens warehouse, each representing an unsolved rape. The city decided to reduce the backlog by spending $12 million to send the kits to outside contractors. Nearly two-thirds of the kits have been tested so far.

Ellen Borakove, spokeswoman for the city medical examiner, said the final batch of kits will be completed by this summer and returned to the city.

"We will check the results and then upload them to the database by the end of the year," Borakove said.

Already the new testing resulted in almost 1,000 DNA hits, 332 of which matched convicted felons not originally suspected in the crimes. One of those solved rapes was the 1996 sexual assault of a Brooklyn 16-year-old. Her assailant, an older man with a bandana over his face, tried to rob her outside her apartment, and when she said she had no cash or jewelry, he raped her.

Scientists testing the teen's rape kit this year matched the assailant's DNA to a convicted robber, and a judge sentenced him to 25 years to life.

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