A government report released Tuesday found that essential DNA evidence in rape cases is often never sent to crime labs for testing. But what our investigation also found is that even when police departments do send rape kits to crime labs, they can go untested for months — even years — while rapists go free.
Now, a five-month CBS News investigation of 24 cities and states has found more than 6,000 rape kits from active investigations waiting months, even years to be tested.
On average, six months in Rhode Island, Alabama and Illinois. It can take nearly a year in Missouri. Up to three years in Anchorage, Alaska. One state, Louisiana, has rape kits dating as far back as 2001 waiting to be tested.
“It’s absolutely astounding,” said Sarah Tofte, Research Director at Human Rights Watch. “What’s the point of sending a rape kit to a crime lab for testing if you can’t get to it for say, eight years?”
Better yet, what is the point of subjecting yourself to a rape kit collection if no one is going to give a shit enough to test it?
It’s no secret that rape kit collection is often experienced by the person undergoing it as extremely violating. This is not necessarily the fault of those doing the collection (though I’m sure that, just like in every other line of work, insensitive assholes exist), but simply the nature of the process. No matter how kind, how gentle, or how efficient the person doing the collection is, laying (at least partially) undressed on a table while strangers examine and swab your body is uncomfortable at best. When you’ve just been raped, when what they’re swabbing and collecting are the body fluids, hairs and DNA of the rapist, and when the only thing you want to do is take a shower and get all remnants of them off and out of you as quickly as possible, it has the potential to be downright traumatizing.
For a person to make the decision to undergo such a process is difficult, and usually done with the desire for justice in mind. To subject a person to it and not even make marginal attempts to bring about that justice is utterly disrespectful, and completely dismissive of what they’ve been through. When women are the vast majority of those being victimized by rape and thus undergoing rape kit collection, it’s also misogynistic, and says a lot about how sexual violence is viewed in comparison to other crimes.
The fact is that in many cases (as rape kits are most frequently useful when the rapist’s identity is unknown), a rape kit also has the potential to catch and stop a rapist who would otherwise not be stopped. And so this delay is also ensuring a failure on the part of our justice system to prevent specific rapes that could easily be prevented:
“If they don’t catch the person on this rape, they are going to commit another one,” Leahy said.
That’s what David Lisak found. An expert on rape at the University of Massachusetts, he says research shows that 71 percent of rapists are repeat offenders.
“The number of assaults that they commit can be anywhere from, in non-stranger cases, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 3, 4, 5, 6 offenses at least per rapist,” Lisak said.
Even with accused repeat offenders there are delays. Prosecutors had to wait 11 months for lab results before they could charge one man with three rapes in Missouri. And because of a backlog at the Louisiana crime lab, a sex offender was just charged with rape, from 2006. Both men deny the charges.
“We had a sense that there were perpetrators out there who were not being followed up on,” said Steve Redding. He’s a county attorney in Minneapolis, and started digging through old cases where the victim didn’t know her attacker, and for one reason or another, the kits were never tested. He sent 35 kits to the lab. Patterns emerged. A case from 1998 matched DNA from a 2007 case.
“Do I think that the person has not committed any sexual assaults in between those nine years,” Redding asked? “Not in my life as a prosecutor for 30 years.
In the end, Redding got DNA matches on eight of the 35 cases, charging all eight with rapes.
I don’t personally believe that rape kits and DNA evidence are ever going to be what stops rape — finding offenders and holding them responsible is important, but changing our culture so that rapes aren’t committed in the first place is the goal. It’s also true that a rape kit turning up a DNA match is hardly a guarantee of a conviction (though it tends to help, at least in stranger rape cases).
And yet all the same, this is an utter travesty. It’s a slap in the face to those women who underwent the process of collection. And it’s a mocking laugh towards the women who are raped by men who would have already been arrested if only the state had gotten up off their damn asses and run the tests they were supposed to run. And when it’s the same law enforcement establishment that tells rape victims they need to report, they need to report, they need to report, and then sits on the evidence like it’s the lowest priority they have, it’s just a little bit hard to believe that they view rape survivors as anything more than the butt of a misogynistic joke.