What Testing Backlogged Sexual Assault Kits is Teaching Law Enforcement About the Crime
The effort to address a backlog of sexual assault kits nationwide has led to tens of thousands of long-shelved kits being tested over the last several years. The FBI Laboratory alone tested more than 3,600 kits in a four-year effort to assist state and local agencies.
The work being done to inventory and test the evidence kits is one part of the story. The other part is what has been discovered about the serial nature of many sexual offenders as thousands of cases are added into the FBI’s national DNA and violent crime databases.
As we mark April as Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the findings offer important insights into the nation’s most underreported violent crime.
Sexual assault kits are created when a victim reports an assault to authorities and consents to allowing a trained nurse or physician to gather physical evidence from his or her body and clothing.
These kits may end up sitting untested by labs or not submitted for testing for a number of reasons, according to Angela Williamson, senior forensic policy adviser with the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), which is leading the sexual assault kit initiative.
Many jurisdictions have backlogs going back to the decades before DNA profiling was well developed. Still other kits have gone untested due to limited law enforcement and lab resources, victims withdrawing from the process, or a lack of training and understanding among law enforcement personnel.
BJA awarded $159 million in grants for the kit initiative between 2015 and 2018 to dozens of state and local jurisdictions; the agency will award another $48 million in grants this year to continue to chisel away at the problem.
Since 2015, the program has inventoried 61,134 kits and sent 44,952 for testing. Of the 39,565 kits that could be tested to completion, 13,521 produced a DNA profile of high enough quality that it could be entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) forensic database.
When the 13,521 kits were entered into CODIS, 6,366 matched to an entry already there. A CODIS entry is only created when an individual or his or her DNA is linked to an alleged crime.
The FBI Laboratory tested 3,610 kits and uploaded 1,965 entries into CODIS. “In 829 of those, there was a match to someone in the database or to another sample in the database,” said Heather LaSalle, a forensic examiner with the FBI’s DNA Casework Unit. LaSalle stressed that a hit in CODIS is an investigative lead only, but those leads can connect cases and offenders.
“When you test so many kits at the same time, you can see how much serial offending is going on,” said Rachel Lovell, a senior research associate at Case Western Reserve University and the lead research partner on the BJA grants received by Ohio’s Cuyahoga County. “We saw serial offenders who are frequently assaulting strangers and nonstrangers,” she added.
The vast majority of sexual assault victims know their assailants, but Lovell stresses that even if the victim names his or her offender, the DNA is still worth taking and testing. “Someone’s known offender could be someone else’s unknown offender,” said Carey Aldridge, the coordinator of Kentucky’s sexual assault kit initiative.
“When you test so many kits at the same time, you can see how much serial offending is going on.”
Rachel Lovell, senior research associate, Case Western Reserve University
One kit submitted to the FBI Lab by the Everett (Washington) Police Department in 2016 linked the DNA gathered from the victim to the host of a 2010 holiday party at which the woman reported being raped. Two weeks after that report was made, the party host was arrested for assaulting another woman in the restroom of a bar. When the FBI Lab tested the first victim’s kit six years later, the man had already been released from prison after serving time for the second assault.
Another kit the FBI tested in 2017 from a 2011 Fayetteville, North Carolina, case linked the DNA to a man who was in prison for a 2016 kidnapping, robbery, and rape. A kit tested by another lab also linked the man to a 1998 assault. The delay in processing the evidence was devastating and costly.
That cost, in dollars and to lives, is something Kentucky has been working to understand as it tests a state backlog of more than 3,000 kits in response to 2016 legislation. Kentucky and other states are finding that individuals who commit sexual assaults often commit more than one sexual assault–and not only do these offenders often assault more victims, they are often linked to other violent and/or property crimes.
The Kentucky study found that the cost to society of not testing the kits is far greater than the expense the state would face in fully funding its crime lab. “We know that rapists are often serial criminals,” researchers wrote in the report. “Someone willing to commit violent, intimate crimes against another person poses the highest risk to other persons and property.”
“Our culture for many, many years mischaracterized rape,” said Gretchen Hunt, executive director for the Office of Victim Advocacy with the Kentucky Attorney General’s Office. She added that the assumption was that if it happened in a familiar setting—if it was someone the person knew—that it was somehow less serious. The reality, born out by the data, is that sexual assault is a violent crime, committed by an individual who is likely to be violent again.
Another powerful tool supporting the effort is the FBI’s Violent Crime Apprehension Program (ViCAP), which can help in cases where there is no DNA or if cases are linked by DNA but there is not yet a name attached. ViCAP allows for agencies to capture descriptions of suspects, vehicle information, incident accounts, and other data that can help connect cases.
Kentucky is one state that has volunteered to enter the information from its sexual assault kits into ViCAP; the BJA program now requires it of grant recipients. Aldridge says using ViCAP is just good policy for Kentucky: “We are a poor state. We don’t have a lot of resources. We are trying to work smarter.”
“One of the most frightening things is that although these data give us a much better picture, it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Lovell. “These victims reported and submitted to a sexual assault kit being collected. Two thirds of victims don’t report, and our data suggest that only about half of those who report get a sexual assault kit.”
Experts agree that the primary lesson learned from the backlog is that law enforcement should investigate each incident of reported sexual assault with vigor and care, which requires reform beyond the lab work and data entries.
“It’s not sufficient just to test—departments need to do something with the information and follow up,” said Angela Williamson, the BJA policy adviser. The BJA grants provide as much funding for prosecutions and investigations as they do for testing. The grants also require that recipients institute organizational changes to prevent the backlog from building up again. In addition, agencies nationwide are embracing the need for first responders to be better trained in sexual assault response, how victims respond to trauma, and how to institute a victim-centered approach in every step of an investigation.
“It’s great to see so many jurisdictions saying, ‘We may not have done this the best way before, but we are doing something about it now,’ ” said Lovell. “Such change is happening,” echoed Williamson.
FBI Lab Assistance Leads to Innovation
A 2013 five-year interagency agreement with the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) allowed the FBI to assist in testing backlogged sexual assault kits submitted by state and local agencies. The first kits arrived in 2014, and the Lab began testing between 15 and 30 kits each week until the effort concluded in September 2018.
Beyond supporting state and local agencies in their efforts to address their backlogs and making important case connections, the intensive work done by the FBI Laboratory helped develop more efficient and effective DNA analysis techniques, including the implementation of DNA robotics, ways to streamline the DNA processing approach, and the recommendation for labs to do direct-to-DNA sampling. The FBI published its recommendations in the NIJ report, National Best Practices for Sexual Assault Kits: A Multidisciplinary Approach, to help enhance the efficiency of DNA analysis in other laboratories. With these innovations making DNA analysis faster and more cost effective, more kits can be worked in laboratories nationwide.