Monsters under the microscope

DNA evidence ensured that man who imprisoned woman became one of only a fraction of rapists to be convicted in Sacramento County

This story has been expanded from its print edition.

The best way to catch a serial predator may be to prevent him from becoming one in the first place. These days, that work often starts in the lab, though it doesn’t end there.

In June, a jury convicted Amit Bharth of beating and raping a developmentally delayed woman he picked up outside of a grocery store in January 2017. According to the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office, Bharth imprisoned the stranded victim for a week, shuttling her from hotel to hotel and promising retribution if she talked. On one of those nights, while both were in his car, he pulled out “patches of her hair,” smashed her head on a door frame and dashboard, and broke her nose, the DA’s office stated in a release.

The victim escaped Bharth’s clutches the next day, fleeing into a business where an employee called 911 A sexual assault exam recovered DNA evidence that was later matched to Bharth, and helped result in his conviction on four felony counts. The crime was one of 387 sexual assaults reported to Sacramento County law enforcement that year, but only 83—less than 22%—were solved. Reported rapes rose to 446 last year, and the clearance rate was only a little better, with 27% resulting in arrests.

Improving those figures could hinge on the availability and examination of biological evidence. In October, the DA’s office received a $380,891 grant from the National Institute of Justice to chip away at its DNA backlog. That backlog is never-ending at the county crime lab, which the DA’s office oversees.

“Since we are continually receiving cases from law enforcement agencies and completing cases in the lab, the number of backlogged cases is fluid,” Chief Deputy District Attorney Steve Grippi wrote in an email.

It can take an average of 60 days to finalize a DNA analysis with peer review, Grippi explained. The crime lab defines a case as backlogged if it takes more than 30 days to complete. Lab technicians completed more than 1,400 analyses last year. As of Nov. 22, the lab was working through a total of 229 unfinished DNA cases—173 of which were more than 30 days old.

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law requiring law enforcement agencies to process every rape kit they collect, a policy the Sacramento County DA’s office has observed since 2013. But there are still scores of sexual assault evidence kits from a decade ago that need to be tested. Grippi said the DA’s office plans to focus the federal backlog reduction grant, which it’s received since 2006, on unsolved homicides and sexual assaults, and wants to whittle down the 60-day average by at least five days. Grippi said Sacramento’s crime lab still needs to analyze approximately 200 rape kits collected between 2009 and 2011.

Bharth, who was previously convicted of possessing methamphetamine and a concealed firearm, among other crimes, is currently being held at the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo. The 42-year-old will stay in prison at least until 2036, his earliest possible parole date.