Sarah Tofte

(WOMENSENEWS)–Catherine, who lives with her young son in Los Angeles, was awakened at midnight by a stranger who raped her, sodomized her and forced her to orally copulate him–repeatedly. When it was over, the police brought her to a rape treatment center. As with all rape victims, her body was a crime scene. She consented to the collection of evidence.

The lab said it would take at least eight months for it to analyze the evidence gathered from Catherine’s body, known as a "rape kit." For the detective, that was too long to wait. He personally drove the kit to the state lab, where it still sat for months.

When it was finally processed, it generated a "cold hit"–the DNA matched someone in the offender database, and Catherine’s rapist was identified. During the months Catherine’s kit sat on a shelf, unopened, the same rapist attacked at least two other victims; one was a child.

In this age of advanced DNA technology, and a heightened public understanding of how DNA testing can help solve crimes, one might assume Catherine’s story wouldn’t happen.

We know that testing a rape kit can identify a potential assailant, confirm a suspect’s contact with a victim, corroborate the victim’s account of the sexual assault and exonerate innocent defendants. National studies have shown that cases in which a rape kit was collected, tested and contained DNA evidence are more likely to move forward in the criminal justice system.

But today, Human Rights Watch, for which I work as a researcher, released a 68-page report that measures the scale of the neglect in Los Angeles.

Over 12,000 Kits Wait for Testing

Through dozens of interviews with police officers, public officials, DNA analysts, rape treatment providers and rape victims, I found that as of March 1, 2009, there were at least 12,669 untested rape kits sitting in storage facilities. In those cases, officers never sent the kits along for forensic testing.

Of these untested kits, at least 1,218 are from unsolved cases in which the attacker was a stranger to the victim. And 499 kits are attached to cases that have passed the 10-year statute of limitations for rape in California, making it impossible to prosecute the alleged assailants even if they were to be identified. Under California law, if those 499 kits had been opened within two years of the attack, the statute would no longer apply. Thousands more rape kits were destroyed untested.

The backlog grew even as the police and sheriff’s departments received millions of federal dollars from the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant, a program the U.S. Congress created to address rape kit backlogs. But the effect of the program is blunted by the fact that grantees can use the money to test any kind of DNA backlog.

Largest Backlog Leads to Injustice

Los Angeles County has the largest known backlog in the United States.

These untested rape kits represent lost justice for the victims who reported their rape to the police, and consented in good faith to the four-to-six hour rape kit collection process.

What makes Catherine’s story unusual is that her rape kit was tested at all.

In New York City, rape survivors stand a much better chance.

New York eliminated its rape kit backlog in 2003 when city officials created a policy that every rape kit would be sent to the laboratory for DNA testing, and the lab built up its DNA testing capacity so that every rape kit would be tested within 60 days.

The lab also created a system in which every time a DNA profile from a rape kit matches a profile in the DNA database, the crime lab, prosecutor’s office and police department are simultaneously notified. To deal with the increase of investigative leads in rape cases because of the testing, the prosecutors and police created a special investigative team. The result has been an increase in arrest and prosecution rates.

Los Angeles officials need to move quickly and decisively to catch up and end its reputation, when it comes to prosecuting rape, as a judicial backwater.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher with the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch and the author of the new report, "Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County."