Rape victims in waiting

Huge backlog of untested rape kits, low arrest rates may change California state law

Sexual-assault victims submit to hours-long forensic analysis—but then many of these rape kits go untested. In Sacramento, the district attorney’s office doesn’t know how many kits collected prior to 2011 have not been tested.

Sexual-assault victims submit to hours-long forensic analysis—but then many of these rape kits go untested. In Sacramento, the district attorney’s office doesn’t know how many kits collected prior to 2011 have not been tested.

illustration by jonathan buck

Drugged and sexually assaulted the night before, Sabrina came to in an empty parking lot one morning in 2007. Slumped in a planter box, she was naked from the waist down and didn’t yet know about the three broken bones in her face.

The last thing Sabrina remembered was being at a downtown Sacramento nightclub with her best friend. Then her world went hazy, and she woke up in a neighborhood 5 miles away, just off of a southbound Interstate 5 exit.

“I still to this day have not had any flashbacks or memories of what happened,” recalled Sabrina, who asked that her last name be withheld. “When my mom got to the hospital, my first words to her were, ’I’m sorry.’ I felt like it was my fault. Now I know it’s not.”

The then-Sacramento State University junior subjected herself to an intensive, seven-hour forensic medical examination, providing anything that might have her attacker’s DNA on it. She thought the exam would be used to bring her rapist to justice.

However, most sexual-assault survivors would be wrong about that.

There were 150 unprocessed rape kits in Sacramento County last year. Advocacy groups put the number of untested rape kits gathering dust in the United States somewhere around 400,000. But that’s just a guess. There could be much more, or far less; exact figures are almost impossible to establish because there is no uniform standard for processing this evidence.

Take Sacramento County. The district attorney’s office doesn’t consider its untested kits backlogged unless the agency has requested analysis. Even so, there were 223 unprocessed ones going back to 2012.

In 2011, the department tested all 222 kits it received. The department doesn’t yet know how many rape kits collected prior to 2011 haven’t been tested.

But Sacramento County fares better than most. That’s because the DA’s office has a lab to test sexual-assault evidence in-house, whereas many other California counties book kits into evidence lockers and then decide whether to send them to the California Department of Justice for processing.

“We know where our kits are,” said Jill Spriggs, director of the DA’s Laboratory of Forensic Services.

Spriggs expected to clear the past two years’ worth of untested kits by May. After that, she said her lab would assess the untested kits prior to 2011.

Each law-enforcement agency exercises its own discretion when it comes to ordering tests of rape kits. The reasoning is that in most sexual-assault cases, the victim knows the attacker. Which means that cops and prosecutors already know who they’re after and don’t need the results of a kit to tell them.

In other cases, tests are back-burnered if victims aren’t willing to participate in the prosecution.

The problem with this case-by-case approach, however, is that it doesn’t account for the serial rapists who might be discovered if every sexual-assault kit was processed and entered into the FBI database.

That’s what Sandra Henriquez, executive director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, thinks. “When the victims undergo the exam, they’re always under the impression that they’re doing that so this can be forwarded [to the FBI],” she said.

But unless a kit is believed to yield some probative evidence in a specific case, it’s either not tested at all or shelved until “time and resources permit,” said Sacramento County DA spokeswoman Shelly Orio.

Testing kits are also expensive and time consuming, say lab officials.

Bruce Houlihan is the president of the California Association of Crime Laboratory Directors. According to him, it takes at least two weeks to process one kit, and that’s if no other major felony cases jump to the front of the line. Asking crime labs to process the backlog on top of their current caseloads is unrealistic, he said. “It’s not just a difficulty. It’s truly practically impossible,” he added.

In 2009, the California Crime Laboratory Review Task Force estimated that an additional 282 analysts would need to be hired to eliminate the state’s backlog.

California is home to a significant chunk of this jigsaw puzzle. Law-enforcement officials in Los Angeles County estimate 12,500 untested kits. Following an audit, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley discovered a backlog of about 1,900.

In October 2011, Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a law that might have helped. The amended bill would have created a 30-month pilot program that processed all kits in the 10 counties with the lowest sexual-assault arrests. Brown killed it, citing budget constraints.

In 2009, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two similar bills for similar reasons.

Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner hopes her bill will finally break the logjam. The East Bay Democrat authored Assembly Bill 1517, which would set a timeline for testing kits and streamline the process by which attackers’ genetic evidence is entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS.

There could be federal money available to put toward the cause. President Barack Obama’s $3.9 trillion budget proposal to Congress for 2015 intends $35 million in grants to local communities to investigate and prosecute sexual assaults.

Skinner believes her bill might even raise the state’s basement-level arrest rates when it comes to sexual assaults. When New York addressed its backlog of 17,000 untested kits, sexual-assault arrests climbed from 40 percent to 70 percent, compared to just 24 percent nationally.

While Skinner’s bill doesn’t require an inventory, Senate Majority Leader Ellen M. Corbett last week said a long-overdue audit of the state’s backlog will go forward. “[W]hen previously untested rape kits are analyzed, sexual crime assailants are oftentimes identified due to the DNA evidence that is found in those rape kits,” she said.

Sabrina was one of the lucky ones, at least initially. Her kit was analyzed and filed. Two years later, in 2009, her phone rang.

The CODIS database recorded a DNA match between a fresh arrest and evidence from her attack. Sabrina took the man to trial in 2011, but still couldn’t remember the worst night of her life. “It was his word against mine,” she said.

The jury found the man not guilty of forcible rape, and issued no verdict on the charge of rape by intoxication.

Despite the anguishing results, Sabrina rebuilt her life. “I just try to focus on what I have control over, bringing awareness and education to my community,” she said.

Now 29, she’s an advocate and educator on the topic of sexual assault. She works with kids as she always planned, but instead of day care, she’s educating them about consent and empowerment.