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CA ‘rape kit’ backlog under fire

A posed image of a rape victim in a dark tunnel, with the shadow of the rapist in the background. (Photo: ChameleonsEye, via Shutterstock)

Thousands of  California women who said they were raped gave details of their assaults to investigators and provided critical data in “rape kits” — DNA, wounds, semen, hair, fibers — to identify their attackers.

But many of the rape kits were not examined in a timely way, caught in a months-long backlog that has angered some lawmakers and women’s groups.

Existing law states that timely DNA analysis of sexual assault kits — commonly called rape kits — are to be submitted by law enforcement agencies to crime labs within 20 days after it is booked into evidence.

According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, a program geared toward educating and advocating for rape survivors, and its initiative called End the Backlog, there are currently over 13,000 untested kits in California — plus 8,000 in Nevada, over 4,000 in Oregon, and over 6,000 in Arizona.

Several California legislators are encouraging law enforcement agencies to test sexual assault kits at a faster rate and audit enormous backlogs. The Senate Public Safety Committee passed Senate Bill 1449 last week in an attempt to offer victims justice and stop serial rapists.

Senator Connie Leyva, D-Chino, the co-author for SB 1449, said this legislation is critical.

“Rape is one of the most life altering and traumatizing experiences, so it’s critical that rape kits are processed swiftly to both attain justice and help identify and prosecute rapists so that we can keep them off the streets.”

Leyva authored SB 813 that eliminated the statute of limitations on rape in California.

Existing law states that timely DNA analysis of sexual assault kits — commonly called rape kits — are to be submitted by law enforcement agencies to crime labs within 20 days after it is booked into evidence. SB 1449 would require a more swift process and impose a higher level of service on local law enforcement agencies.

Assembly Bill 3118 acts as a companion bill to SB 1449, which will require all law enforcement agencies, medical facilities, crime laboratories, and any other facilities that receive, maintain, store, or preserve sexual assault evidence kits to conduct an audit of all evidence in their possession.

The victim has the right to decline any of these steps, the foundation said. Exams are always free.

Co-author Assemblymember David Chiu, D- San Francisco, said the backlog of DNA test kits is a significant issue.

“In 2015, it was estimated that there were thousands of untested rape kits in the country,” said Chiu, who used to serve as a criminal prosecutor at the San Francisco district attorney’s office.

Rape survivors go through a lengthy examination.

After an examiner obtains a thorough medical history from the victim, the victim stands on a large sheet of paper while undressing in order to catch any hair or fiber that may contain evidence. During the physical examination, injuries are examined and biological evidence is gathered, including semen, urine, skin cells, and hair. Swabbing of the skin, genitalia, mouth and under fingernails is taken. The victim’s body is photographed head to toe. The victim has the right to decline any of these steps, the foundation said. Exams are always free.

“We want justice for these survivors,” said Chiu, who was inspired to pursue the bill because of a 2015 murder case.

Keith Kenard Asberry Jr., of Antioch, was charged with killing Randhir Kaur in 2015 after he raped and shot her. The attack took place nearly eight years after a 19-year-old and 15-year-old were kidnapped and sexually assaulted in Berkeley.

The Joyful Heart Foundation defines a backlogged kit as one that has not been submitted to an accredited public of private crime lab for testing within 10 days of being booked into evidence.

In 2016, a San Francisco Chronicle investigation revealed that the Berkeley Police Department had failed to test a rape kit from that attack. If the kit had been tested, investigators could have matched Asberry’s DNA in a national database since he was convicted of a felony gun crime in 2005.

“It has been difficult to understand why are are so many untested kits,” Chiu said. “If cost is an issue, there is significant federal funding available to local agencies.” The cost of testing one rape kit ranges anywhere from $400 to over $1,000, the National Center for Victims of Crime reported.

Alameda County took action in 2014 to clear a backlog of rape kits from dozens of almost 2,000 kits,100 of them, from Berkeley and Hayward, were sent to a private lab in Virginia.

The issue will get national attention as HBO plans to release a documentary on April 16, called “I Am Evidence,” detailing survivor’s stories of getting tested and the astronomical amounts of backlogged kits. The Joyful Heart Foundation defines a backlogged kit as one that has not been submitted to an accredited public of private crime lab for testing within 10 days of being booked into evidence.

Chiu said national advocates propose every state audits backlogged kits, puts trackers on all new kits, and allows for victims to inquire about the status of their kits. “The more time that passes, the harder it is to prove a case…people’s memories fade,” Chiu said.

But it’s not just the rape survivors that benefit from testing and auditing. “We need to exonerate the individuals who may be innocent,” Chiu said. “We know testing kits will save lives.”

SB 1449 will be heard next in the Senate Appropriations Committee, while AB3118 will be heard in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
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Ed’s Note: Corrects bills’ committee destinations, final graf.

 


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