ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In Los Angeles, investigators are trying to determine how many DNA evidence kits have gone unprocessed. Police commonly refer to them as rape kits because they're used to gather evidence in sexual assault cases. Police use that evidence to arrest and prosecute suspects, but right now they say thousands of those kits have just been stored away and never processed. And they're under pressure to cut through that backlog, as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: When someone is raped or sexually assaulted in Los Angeles, it's likely they'll end up at the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center. It's located down the hall from the emergency room and furnished with couches and soft lighting. Director Gail Abarbanel says everyone tries to provide comfort for the victim as she goes through the laborious exam and collection of evidence. Abarbanel says the process can take hours.
Ms. GAIL ABARBANEL (Director, Rape Treatment Center, UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica, California): It's very personal, the way you're giving evidence and allowing somebody to collect evidence off of your body.
KAHN: Dozens of tissue, urine and swabbings are put into separate envelopes and sealed with red evidence tape. Abarbanel says victims consent to the process in the hopes that any foreign DNA removed from them will be checked against the state's criminal database.
Mr. ABARBANEL: So you're really making a commitment to participate in the criminal justice system and provide evidence that will aid in the prosecution of your case. Not opening rape kits, it's just really a profound betrayal of the victim's belief in the criminal justice system.
KAHN: A recent audit by the Los Angeles city controller showed that the Police Department had nearly 7,000 unopened and untested rape kits. Soon after, the L.A. County Sheriff disclosed its office was storing 5,000. At least 200 kits have been in the LAPD's storage facility past the current statute of limitations, 10 years. That's what happened in Jeri Elster's case. She was assaulted by a stranger who broke into her home through a window, tied her up and repeatedly raped her.
(Soundbite of cars passing)
Ms. JERI ELSTER (Rape victim): It was an awful two and a half hours.
KAHN: Elster's powder-blue eyes and warm smile belie the horrors she retells outside the office building where she's just started a new job. She says she couldn't work for years after the rape. Then, seven years after her assault, she read a newspaper article about a rape suspect with an M.O. similar to her case. Elster took the article to an LAPD detective who decided to finally test the DNA in her rape kit.
Ms. ELSTER: Lo and behold, the LAPD comes out with its first cold hit to this person not in the article but to somebody in the system already. They now have a match.
KAHN: But the statute of limitations, at that time six years, had lapsed in her case. The district attorney told her there was nothing she could do.
Ms. ELSTER: I got so angry and yet so incensed. And I decided right there and then, this cannot happen to anybody else.
KAHN: Elster successfully lobbied to get the statute of limitations lengthened to 10 years. And now she's pushing to get all rape kits tested. L.A. is not the only city buried under a backlog. Nationwide, police departments are struggling with huge stockpiles of untested DNA evidence. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, as many as 400,000 rape kits sit unopened in crime labs and storage facilities.
Mr. GREG MATHESON (Director, Los Angeles Police Department Crime Lab): This is the examination room. It's where the original screening process is performed.
KAHN: At the LAPD's crime lab, Director Greg Matheson shows off the newly-expanded DNA examination wing that will help whittle away at the backlog. The building just opened last year. There are 20 work benches in the climate-controlled lab.
Mr. MATHESON: Yeah, there's 20 that can work at one time.
KAHN: Do you have that many?
Mr. MATHESON: Not all screening right now, but we hope to.
KAHN: Last month, officials vowed to clear the city's rape kit back log and begin testing every new kit collected. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa says L.A. will hire 16 new technicians and outsource much of the backlog testing. He says rapists are mistaken if they thought they got away with it.
Mayor ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA (Democrat, Los Angeles): Well you didn't. The city of Los Angeles will investigate every piece of evidence that will lead to the possible prosecution of every open case.
KAHN: But with the city facing at least a $110 million deficit this year, it's unclear whether all that evidence will get tested. Carrie Kahn, NPR News.