by Jayson Hawkins
Few crimes are as traumatic as a violent sexual assault. When the assailants are unknown and at large, victims often remain in a constant state of anxiety and apprehension, unsure when or if they may be attacked again. DNA evidence collected from a rape kit can be the only means of identifying the perpetrator and restoring any sense of safety to victims, yet thousands of these kits have been gathering dust in storage across the country.
“One thing that keeps coming up time and again, not just locally, but also nationally, is lab capacity,” said Maryland State Senator Shelly Hettleman. Maryland alone has over 6,000 untested rape kits, not including another 1,800 in Baltimore County, which Hettleman represents.
Public outcry in 2019 led to legislation and reforms intended to clear out the backlog. A law in Maryland requiring DNA tests on the majority of rape kits was enacted in January 2020, just in time for the coronavirus pandemic to surge into the national consciousness.
“The second COVID happened, everything ceased,” said Jeff Ray, a Baltimore County police assistant tasked with testing the kits.
Ray added that the project is starting to get back on track, but back-ordered supplies, staffing shortages, and other issues have severely limited the amount of progress.
By the end of July 2021, Maryland had tested only around 4% of its backlog—about 300 kits. Out of the 1,800 samples stored in the Baltimore County Hospital, just 35 had been processed in the past two years. With COVID-19 testing absorbing nearly all of the state’s lab resources, Sen. Hettleman was pushing for an expansion of forensic facilities to accommodate the testing of rape kits as well.
Another solution has been to turn to the private sector. Several states, including Maryland, have begun using companies like Bode Technology to reduce their backlogs. With two out of three states in the U.S. enacting legislation regarding rape kits, it is estimated that demand for testing has tripled at the same time government facilities have been overrun with the pandemic.
Factors beyond COVID have also contributed to testing lags. Not all police departments have been enthusiastic about the light that DNA evidence could shed on shadier investigation methods of the past. “Some law enforcement agencies have resisted working with advocates or been less than receptive to a project that will reopen some cases they thought were closed,” said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, an organization that urges authorities to process the stockpile of rape kits.
A few agencies have managed to overcome hesitancy and delays surrounding testing. After bolstering its Sex Crimes Unit and prioritizing cold cases, the Austin Police Department was able to clear out its backlog. The impetus to do so came after sexual assault survivors filed a lawsuit against the city for mishandling their cases.
As with many ideals, justice is frequently derailed by the immovable realities of economics. For sexual assaults, justice for survivors has often hinged on the perceived expense of delivering it, though recent research is revising how such costs should be calculated.
One study by Michigan prosecutors calculated victims’ lost wages and health expense along with the criminal justice costs and found the economic damage of a rape to exceed $240,000. That brutal math does not include the lingering emotional trauma suffered by survivors when their cases go unsolved, nor does it take into account payments to the growing number of individuals exonerated of wrongful sexual assault convictions by DNA testing. Bernard Webster, a Maryland man who spent a decade behind bars for a rape he did not commit, may be owed $1.7 million per an updated state law, yet no amount of money can replace those lost years.
Whether one weighs the human or the economic damage, the costs of leaving rape kits untested has grown too great to ignore.
As a digital subscriber to Criminal Legal News, you can access full text and downloads for this and other premium content.
Already a subscriber? Login