Inspired by a CNN investigation that revealed law enforcement agencies nationwide improperly destroyed rape kits, a Georgia lawmaker introduced legislation Wednesday aimed at preventing that from happening in his state.
“We have an obligation, if and when we find the perpetrator of a sex crime, that we bring cases. And we do that with all the evidence possible to win,” said Rep. Scott Holcomb, a former prosecutor.
CNN’s investigation, “Destroyed,” surveyed more than 200 police departments and sheriff’s offices around the country and found that 25 agencies in 14 states trashed rape kits in unsolved reported sex crimes while the statutes of limitations were still running. The destruction followed flawed and incomplete investigations and most kits were never tested for DNA. The practice of destroying kits was routine and occurred with little to no oversight, CNN found.
While Georgia and other states have grappled with backlogs of untested kits, the destruction of that evidence is a more fundamental crisis. The kits are gone and can never be used to lock up a rapist or exonerate the wrongfully convicted.
Holcomb’s bill requires that any investigating agency maintain evidence containing biological material for 50 years or the length of the statute of limitations, whichever is greater.
That mirrors the federal government’s guidance. The National Institute of Justice recommends maintaining rape kits in “uncharged or unsolved reported cases” for at least 50 years or the length of the statute of limitations.
In Georgia, there is no statute of limitations for rape, aggravated sodomy and aggravated sexual battery as long as the suspect remains unknown. If the suspect is known, the statute of limitations is 15 years.
DeKalb County District Attorney Sherry Boston applauded Holcomb’s legislation. The challenge of investigating sexual assault cases, she said, is that law enforcement may have an offender’s DNA and know that the same profile has turned up at other crime scenes “but it may take decades for that person to actually be identified.”
Many rapists are serial offenders, so when kits are destroyed, the chance to use the evidence to identify suspects and link them to multiple attacks is lost. Prosecutions are also put at risk when defendants cannot exercise their right to test original evidence used against them in court. Trashing rape kits, dozens of experts told CNN, endangers public safety.
An example illustrating the power of preserving rape kits – even beyond the statute of limitations – is the case of the Golden State Killer who terrorized California in the 1970s and ’80s. Police used DNA from rape kits to help identify Joseph James DeAngelo, who was arrested last April. He has been charged with multiple counts of murder, some involving other offenses related to rape, robbery and burglary.
In Georgia, rape kit destruction is unknown
In CNN’s investigation, reporters concluded that since 2010, at least 400 rape kits have been destroyed in unsolved cases while prosecutions were still viable. The number is likely higher. That’s because there are an estimated 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States; CNN surveyed 207.
In Georgia, CNN surveyed three police departments: Atlanta Police Department, Hapeville and Lake City Police. Each said they had not destroyed rape kits. (See how CNN chose each department it surveyed)
There are 450 law enforcement agencies in Georgia with full-time employees, according to the FBI.
The heads of Georgia’s sheriffs and police organizations told CNN this week that they don’t know whether agencies have destroyed or currently destroy rape kits.
Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police, and Terry Norris, who heads the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association, said they support keeping rape kits for the length of the statutes of limitations.
They warned, however, that some agencies may complain they don’t have enough space in their evidence rooms to store rape kits for 50 years. The kits are smaller than shoeboxes, they acknowledged, and smaller agencies would likely have few kits.
Despite the perceived challenges, both were optimistic about working with Holcomb to do what is best for the safety of all Georgians.
“My initial response is to support [the bill] if it will help prosecute a case. It’s a good idea and we ought to do it,” said Norris.
Police chief: ‘No question’ kits should be kept
Georgia would not be the first state to enact legislation requiring the maintenance of rape kits in unsolved cases. Missouri passed a law last year requiring that they be kept for 30 years in cases that have not been adjudicated. Idaho requires that rape kits tied to felony cases be preserved for 55 years.
Idaho state Rep. Melissa Wintrow fought hard a couple years ago to pass that bill.
“I’m happy to talk to anyone in Georgia about this issue because, in my experience, this is about educating folks,” she said. “Rape kits don’t take up a lot of space. The pushback I saw is when the counties feel like the state is making these laws without consulting them or giving them funding to help them carry out the law.”
Norris and Rotondo said that any bill that is passed must come with mandated funding. Holcomb said he supports state funding.
“I understand that many agencies are under-resourced and that has to be addressed, they have to be helped,” Holcomb said. “We all have to come together on this.”
LaGrange, Georgia, Police Chief Louis Dekmar told CNN that the solution may lie in removing the responsibility of maintaining kits from some of the smaller agencies.
Dekmar is the recent past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, which for two decades has issued best practices in sex crimes investigations.
He’d like to see regional storage centers established across the state that meet the standards necessary to preserve, track and secure DNA evidence. And no matter what happens with the legislation, he said, it’s got to have teeth. The law should detail some mechanism for oversight, entice agencies with incentives to follow through and spell out punitive measures if they don’t.
“There should be no question about storing these kits, and I’m not sure we shouldn’t be keeping them past the statute of limitations,” Dekmar said. “What is the resistance? Tell me what that really is?”
Dekmar noted that there is no time limit to prosecute murder in Georgia and there’s been no opposition to maintaining evidence in those cases.