Untested Rape Kit Backlog Represents A 'Public Safety Issue' In U.S.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
In television dramas, the DNA from crime scenes comes back from the lab in a matter of hours and the suspect is in handcuffs before the second commercial. But in real life, it takes money and time to process DNA, and police departments have huge backlogs of untested evidence, especially rape kits. Reporter Abigail Tracy with the news website Vocativ has written about the massive backlog, and she talked with me about the reasons behind it.
ABIGAIL TRACY: The main one is that technology has just improved drastically since, you know, the early '90s. DNA testing didn't necessarily become standard until the early 2000s. So what you have is there were all these police departments that were taking these samples, but they didn't necessarily have the means to test them. Now, fast-forward 10 years, DNA kit testing has become much more standard in the early 2000s. And what you have is all these old evidence sitting on the shelves.
BLOCK: What's involved in testing a rape kit? Is it - does it take a long time? Is it expensive?
TRACY: Yeah, a little bit of both. On average - the estimates that I heard - it costs between $1,000 to $1,200 to test an individual rape kit. It can be sometimes as much as $1,500. Beyond that, it takes a great deal of time, and a lot of crime labs throughout the United States, they're very backed up in terms of all these other tests that they're doing. So it's a little difficult to bring old cold cases and also add those to their workload.
BLOCK: How often are police departments able to get a DNA profile from testing a rape kit and then actually match that profile to somebody who's in the federal database of known offenders?
TRACY: Right now kind of looking at these backlogged cases what they've found is - a few people that I've spoken with, they said that about 50 percent of the time you're going to get a DNA profile from a rape kit. And that means that they have enough genetic markers for it to be a quality sample, according to the FBI standards. Once you have that and you enter it into the DNA database - CODIS - about 30 to 40 percent of those will actually get a hit in the system.
BLOCK: Well, even if they do get a DNA profile and do get a match then there's still the question of whether the case is prosecutable.
TRACY: So what happens is, say, you do get a hit in CODIS on a DNA profile. What you have to do then is then you have to - you sort of reopen the case entirely and find if there's enough of a narrative to be able to say that that DNA sample was from the perpetrator in the crime. And once you do that then you have to track that suspect down and get a confirmation sample to make sure that nothing went wrong and that it was actually their sample that you're finding in the rape kit. And you're going to have to create this narrative again to see will this be prosecutable, which is a very long, painstaking process. And it requires - many, many man-hours have to go into opening these cases again, you know, on the part of the crime labs, on the part of the detectives and on the part of the prosecutors.
BLOCK: In your story, Abigail, you point out there are two cities - New York and Los Angeles - that have managed to completely clear their backlog of rape kits - get them all tested. How did they do it? What did they do that other cities haven't been able to do?
TRACY: Well, both of them had massive backlogs to begin with. So New York's was about 17,000 and LA's was about 12,500 backlogged, untested rape kits that they found. But both of those cities had very strong pushes from the public and also the governments in those local areas, but they also had resources. So what you really need if you have these backlogs that have hundreds or thousands of kits is to create special crime teams that can go in and really, you know, do due diligence on these different court - like, these old cold cases because if these people are out there still, it is a public safety issue. And you think if there's something that you can do to kind of put these people behind bars or bring them to justice, you should do it. And yes, it'll cost money and yes, it will require a great deal of manpower, but at the of the day, untested rape kits mean that there is a public safety issue at hand.
BLOCK: Well, Abigail Tracy, thanks very much for talking with us.
TRACY: Thank you so much for having me.
BLOCK: Abigail Tracy is a reporter with the news website Vocativ. Her story titled "Rape Kit Backlog Grows Nationwide, Jeopardizing Prosecutions" appears in Scientific American.