Rape kits left untested for decades in U.S. cities

With possibly hundreds of thousands of rape kits untested across the U.S., a number of states are proposing legislation to address backlogs that in some cases date back nearly three decades.

States push to eliminate backlog of hundreds of thousands of cases

Carol Bart, seen in 2012, was kidnapped and raped repeatedly at knifepoint and she submitted to a rape kit at the time. It would be 24 years before the kit was tested, entered into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System and produced a hit on Joseph Houston Jr. (AP file photo)

With possibly hundreds of thousands of rape kits untested across the country, a number of states are proposing legislation to address backlogs that in at least one case dates back nearly three decades.

In Memphis, Tenn., alone, there are more than 12,000 untested rape kits going back to the 1980s, according to the New York-based Rape Kit Action Project, which has been tracking the backlogs nationwide. In Texas, about 16,000 untested kits are collecting dust in police evidence rooms across the state.

Tennessee is among at least 17 states with proposals that range from requiring law enforcement agencies to inventory their rape kits to analyzing them in a certain amount of time. Three states — Colorado, Illinois and Texas — have passed laws that mandate a statewide accounting of untested rape kits.

Every day that a sexual assault kit sits untested represents justice delayed.- A.C. Wharton, mayor of Memphis, Tenn.

Most of the other states' proposals favour the inventory measure, which would require all law enforcement agencies that store rape kits to count the number of untested kits. Rape Project spokeswoman Natasha Alexenko estimated there are about 400,000 nationwide that fall into that category.

"Until we enact this kind of legislation where we're counting them, we really have no idea," said Alexenko, a rape victim whose rape kit was finally tested after nearly 10 years. Her attacker was arrested after a match was found.

Rape victim Meaghan Ybos, 27, of Memphis has been crusading for legislation to address the backlogs for several years. She was 16 when she was sexually assaulted in her suburban home in 2003. She underwent a forensic rape exam, but never heard anything else about her kit.

In 2012, she learned on local news police had arrested a suspected serial rapist in her neighbourhood.

"I just knew it was the same person," Ybos recalled. She called police, told them about her assault and persuaded them to reopen her case. Her rape kit was eventually examined and the suspect's DNA matched that in her kit. The suspect pleaded guilty in her case and is currently incarcerated.

Statute of limitations

Ybos, who is also supporting a proposal to lift Tennessee's eight-year statute of limitation on rapes, said it shouldn't have taken her that long to get justice.

"They never tried to process it until I called … and asked them," Ybos said of her rape kit.

A spokeswoman for the Memphis Police Department recently told The Associated Press she couldn't comment about the backlog because the department is in the middle of litigation concerning a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of women whose rape kits haven't been tested.

But when asked about the situation at an event earlier this month, Memphis Mayor A. C. Wharton didn't mince words.

"We had a systemic failure here," he said of the backlog.

Last year, Congress officially recognized the backlog of untested rape kits as a national problem in passing the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act, or SAFER, which seeks to provide data on the number of unsolved rape cases awaiting testing and establish better standards for the tracking, storage and use of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases.

The federal government is also providing funding to help cover the costs for testing the kits, which usually contain swabs, evidence envelopes and information sheets detailing the examination. They cost at least $500 to test, a process that involves several steps, including determining whether there's sufficient material from which a subsequent DNA test may derive a reliable sample.

Tight budgets

Wharton has asked Memphis city council for $1 million to help with the backlog. He said a little over 2,000 of the kits have been sent to laboratories, and that it could take up to five years for all the kits to be tested.

Memphis, like many other cities, is operating on a tight budget. But Wharton said he's determined to get the money needed to address the city's backlog, even if it means reaching out to philanthropic groups for donations.

"Every day that a sexual assault kit sits untested represents justice delayed," he said.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a co-sponsor of the TBI proposal, said some type of legislation needs to be passed to address the backlogs because besides rape victims there are individuals who have been falsely accused of rape and need the kits tested to be exonerated.

"They could have been incarcerated while waiting for the evidence to clear them, or maybe they pled down to a lesser charge just to get out of jail," he said.