The reopening of the notorious Central Park jogger rape case is bringing renewed attention to the backlog of rape evidence kits that haven’t been evaluated–and the implications of such delays for victims.

Debbie Holbrook

NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)–The role of DNA in rape trials is receiving renewed attention with the reopening of the Central Park jogger case. Today the Manhattan District Attorney’s office recommended the state Supreme Court overturn the convictions of the five men indicted in the case.

The court will make the final decision on the case by February.

New revelations from the 13-year old case, in which a 28-year-old investment banker was rapedand left near death in the park, have women’s advocacy groups and DNA experts calling for measures to ensure that evidence from sexual assaults is properly collected and analyzed to better prosecute rapists.

While New York City police and district attorneys were preparing a case against five teen-agers who were ultimately convicted of the April 19, 1989 attack, Matias Reyes, who last winter confessed to raping the jogger–and whose admission is supported by DNA evidence–continued to terrorize women on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

By the time he was arrested in August 1989, Reyes had raped and murdered a 24-year-old pregnant mother of three and raped three other women. He pled guilty to those crimes and was sentenced to 33 and one-third years behind bars. He has also recently admitted to raping a fourth woman two days before the Central Park attack, but the statute of limitations has expired on that crime, and he cannot be prosecuted for it.

If, in April 1989, police had compared the DNA sample found at the Central Park crime scene to DNA evidence from a string of rapes on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, they would have most likely realized all the rapes had been committed by the same man.

"The Central Park jogger case shows that legislation is needed to build a comprehensive DNA database to catch criminals," says Alex Leader, executive director of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women. "We’ve learned a lesson from this case."

As of September 2000, New York City had 16,000 untested rape kits in cold storage. Law enforcement initiated a program then to spend $12 million during three years to pay private laboratories to perform the necessary examinations. The backlog now, by one estimate, could be as low as 1,000.

The National Organization for Women, in conjunction with the Street Harassment Project of New York city, is calling for a federal investigation of the Central Park case, questioning whether police and prosecutors failed to bring justice to the jogger.

"This case is a tragedy for a number of reasons," said Michael Warren, a defense attorney for three of the convicted men. "Other women became victims. The police and the prosecutors knew there was another rapist out there, but they had their confessions and they didn’t care. They wanted to tie a neat ribbon around their case."

Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners Assist Victims, Courts

The credibility and use of DNA to convict has increased dramatically since the 1990 Central Park trial. The five teens were indicted largely based on the confessions they gave, despite the fact that none of their DNA matched semen found on the jogger.

But when Reyes confessed earlier this year, his admission alone likely would not have launched a reinvestigation of the case. Only when his DNA matched did the case receive such attention.

Preserving DNA from crime scenes is critical, according to legislators such as U.S. Sens. Joseph Biden of Delaware and Charles Schumer of New York. Both have been active in proposing bills that would ensure that DNA is properly collected to ensure convictions.

One bill sponsored by the two senators, the Sexual Assault Justice Act, failed to pass the House this fall. It would have set aside funds to staff hospitals with trained forensic nurses, called sexual assault nurse examiners, who specialize in collecting evidence that can be used to prosecute attackers.

But with only 300 sexual assault nurse training programs in operation across the country, the likelihood of seeing a trained nurse is slim, according to Debbie Holbrook, founder of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Program at Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford, Del.

In New York City, for example, only seven hospitals offer such programs, according to the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault.

"Victims aren’t aware of this," said Holbrook. "They walk into a hospital, not knowing that there’s not a team of people there to take care of them; that it’s only available in one hospital in a city."

Sexual assault nurse examiners perform a speculum exam and take swabs from the vagina, rectum and gums. Photographs of the genitals are taken. Pubic hair is combed. In addition, some states require that 25 pubic hairs be pulled. Fingernails are scraped or clipped. Blood is drawn. The nurses are also trained to deal with a victim’s emotional state, as the experience of collecting evidence can be distressing for an already traumatized rape victim.

The training program at Nanticoke Memorial, one of the best in the country, illustrates the importance of properly preserving evidence.

According to Holbrook, 90 percent of sexual assault victims who arrive at Nanticoke Memorial never have to go to court because the DNA evidence collected by the team of nurses is so conclusive.

"We say to the attacker, ‘Look what we have against you,’" said Holbrook. "The end result is that victims don’t have to be traumatized again in court. It’s good for the victims, and it’s good for the courts."

Nationwide, sexual assault nurse examiners are also aiding prosecutors through testimony. A study of examiner programs released last year by the Department of Justice’s Office for Victims of Crime found that forensic nurses "have been critical in helping prosecutors obtain increased numbers of guilty pleas from defendants."

But without continued federal dollars to fund examiner education and training programs, hospitals have to piecemeal together funds, according Kathy Bell, president of the International Association of Forensic Nurses and coordinator of forensic nursing services at the Tulsa Police Department in Oklahoma.

"The need is for continued for education," Bell said. "Without education, the evidence isn’t protected and preserved, which can have devastating effects on a legal case."

Rape Kit Backlog Estimated to be 500,000

In New York City in 1989, authorities were able to compare DNA samples in local cases, but no statewide DNA database existed until 1994, the same year New York began requiring DNA samples from people convicted of murder, rape and assault.

A national FBI database, established in 1990, allows state authorities to compare DNA evidence. But there is a growing frustration that both state and national databases are unable to enter rapists’ DNA samples because of the backlog of rape kits.

A government report released in 1999 reported that 180,000 untested rape kits were sitting in police stations and labs across the country. That number may now be closer to 500,000, experts say.

At the Alleghany County Coroner’s Office in Pittsburgh, kits from 600 rape, homicide and assault kits from the last five years are in storage.

"We literally have 600 cases frozen in time," said Charles Kritko, deputy director for the forensic laboratory division in Alleghany.

Kritko says a lack of federal funding, as well as the county’s inability to hire and keep trained forensic scientists (starting salaries at his lab are $23,000) has ramifications: The lab at Alleghany no longer can afford to perform DNA tests on rape kits in cases where the police don’t have a suspect or don’t believe the rape is part of a serial attack.

Alleghany isn’t alone in its refusal to test certain rape kits. Across the country, if a woman is raped by someone she doesn’t know, there is a 90 percent chance that her rape kit will never get tested for DNA, according to Howard Safir, former police commissioner of New York City.

"I have spoken to every police chief in every major city across the country and the backlog is overwhelming," said Safir, who contends that not testing rape kits, which typically costs labs around $500, is essentially allowing rapists the freedom to attack again.

Safir’s frustration with the DNA backlog during his tenure as police commissioner led him to found the Rape Evidence Project, an organization that channels private funds to fiscally strapped local enforcement authorities so labs can pay for testing. Expected to officially launch by the end of this year, the Rape Evidence Project has already raised $45,000 through word of mouth.

"It’s outrageous to put a woman through the process of taking evidence for a rape kit and not do anything with that evidence," Safir said. "A woman who is raped has a right to get that kit analyzed."

Safir believes the lack of legislation has to do with the government’s reluctance to spend money, but also reflects ingrained attitudes about victims’ rights.

"Women victims aren’t given enough attention," he said. "This is an area that needs be addressed. DNA testing can save someone from being a victim and the only reason we aren’t doing is it because of money. That is not acceptable."

Nor is it acceptable to many that convicted rapist and murderer Reyes cannot be charged in the Central Park jogger case because the statute of limitations has expired. Legislation such as the Sexual Assault Justice Act would have extended the statute in cases in which DNA tests point to a previously unknown assailant.

As it is, Reyes is sentenced to 33 and one-third years behind bars–too short of a sentence, according to NOW’s Leader.

"Hindsight is 20/20," Safir said of the 1989 investigation and trial. "DNA wasn’t given as much attention then. The police weren’t looking at the DNA and they had the confessions. What I am gratified is that now DNA has proven who is innocent and who is guilty."

Dakota Smith is a freelance writer in New York City.

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