Rape evidence ignored by police departments statewide

In her continuing report, Linda Byron finds thousands more rape kits containing DNA evidence aren't being tested

Rape is a horrific crime that often goes unsolved. Even victims who are brutally violated are sometimes reluctant to go to police or to have evidence collected from their body and clothing at a hospital.

That's why Evergreen Health in Kirkland staffs its emergency room with a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner (also called a forensic nurse examiner) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Those nurses provide emotional support to rape victims, while also delicately and carefully collecting evidence—called a rape kit--that may have been left behind by a perpetrator. With the victim's consent, the rape kits are sent on to the police, where the DNA evidence can help track down and prosecute perpetrators.

Evergreen nurse Susan Johnson she says it's not easy for rape victims to be photographed, swabbed and examined in a 15-step, four-hour process.

"I think no matter what, they do feel re-victimized slightly," Johnson said. "But we do everything we can to support them."

Johnson said most rape victims who agree to have a rape kit collected do it because they believe it will help police and prosecutors track down the person who raped them and bring them to justice.

"They (victims) want the kit to be tested, they want to know if it matches somewhere, they watch CSI, they want to know how these things get tracked and want that for themselves," Johnson said.

Once the kit is collected, it's up to police to submit it to the Washington State Crime Lab, where forensic scientists examine the evidence and tease out the DNA belonging to an alleged rapist.

Those results go into a system called CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System--a huge national database run by the FBI containing DNA profiles.

CODIS Lab Manager Jean Johnston says if there is a hit it means the DNA from the rape kit matches the profile of a convicted offender or suspect that was previously entered CODIS.

But the lab can't test what it never gets. And the KING 5 Investigators found that the majority of rape kits in Washington are still sitting in evidence rooms.

Seattle Police Department records show that out of 1641 rape kits collected over a decade, only 365 were ever submitted to the Washington State Patrol Lab, leaving nearly 1300 untested kits on the shelf.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) is in the process of surveying nearly 300 law enforcement agencies statewide to find out how many untested rape kits are out there.

WASPC Executive Director Mitch Barker says so far only 68 agencies have returned the surveys, but the number of untested rape kits has already reached 4,679. Barker expects the number could easily hit 6,000 and the Washington State Patrol crime lab predicts it could be much higher.

All of those untested kits worry victims' advocates like Mary Ellen Stone, Director of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center in Renton.

"The justice system needs to be as responsive to victims as it can possibly be," Stone says "Where we get really concerned about rape kits not being tested, for whatever reason, is that it sends a very dismissive message to victims."

The Seattle Police Department says that there are valid reasons not to test kits, for example if they already know who the suspect is, or if prosecutors don't plan to file charges.

In November, Sgt. Sean Whitcomb defended the department's practice of submitting only about one of every five rape kits to the crime lab for testing.

"The Seattle Police Department is absolutely comfortable in our practices, our protocols and in our policies surrounding evidence collection, specifically to sex crimes," Whitcomb said.

But on Tuesday, the police department did an about face.

"We're looking at testing all sexual assault kits moving forward and we basically are working with our partners, in constant communication with the prosecutor's office, victim advocacy groups and the sexual assault networks to ensure that what we are doing is the gold standard," Whitcomb said.

Most rape victims thought police were already doing that—it's why they're willing to go through that intensive four hour examination to begin with, according to victims' advocates.

"The power that was taken from them during the sexual assault, it (the rape kit) gives them the power to know that they can prosecute this person," says Mary Ellen Stone of the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center.

Wednesday afternoon in Olympia there will be a house hearing on a proposed bill sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall that would require police to send all rape kits to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for testing going forward. The bill also calls for a work group to figure out what to do about the backlog of old rape kits that were never tested.


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