Los Angeles County was not the only place where rape kit backlogs were brought to the attention of the public.
We previously mentioned the Detroit backlog of over 11,300 kits in police storage facility. When the city had processed the few hundred it could afford to test, the State of Michigan agreed to fund the testing of the rest. That testing is still in progress.
Houston, Texas spent $4.4 million in federal and city funding to send its backlog of 6,600 sexual assault kits to an outside lab. Testing should be completed early next year. Additional funds have been secured for the testing of 20,000+ rape kits statewide.
Ohio is also in the process of tackling a rape kit backlog. “Over the past several years,” the Cleveland Plain Dealer says, “[the newspaper’s] reporters have raised questions about the thousands of untested rape kits in police evidence rooms across the state and the country.
“Cleveland police began counting their untested rape kits in 2009 and later began sending them in batches for testing.
“In 2011, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine stepped up testing efforts by asking all departments to send kits to state labs.”
In 2009, Cleveland expected their evidence to amount to about 3,000 rape kits. Since starting the process, they have tallied more than 6,180 kits “and pieces of evidence from sexual assaults going back as many as 17 years.” Since the statute of limitations is 20 years, there is urgency regarding bringing indictments in older cases. The first indictment out of the 2011 statewide rape kit initiative came one day too late for the 20-year limit.
The Plain Dealer also discovered that a rape kit left untested in 2009 by the Cleveland Heights Police Department might have lead to an earlier arrest of Anthony Sowell. Sowell was convicted in 2011 of the murders of 11 women — whose bodies he left rotting in his Cleveland home on Imperial Avenue. He also committed several attacks on women who survived. In April, 2009, one of those women reported a rape and kidnapping to police, and according to the police report quoted in the Plain Dealer, “the woman showed signs of trauma, including numerous scratch marks on her neck and hands, and had areas of her scalp where hair had been ripped out during a struggle. The report also noted that the woman’s voice was raspy ‘due to strangulation.’ Most of the Imperial Avenue victims were strangled.” Five of the murder victims were killed after the rape kit was collected. After his arrest, the April, 2009 kit was tested and found to be a match to Sowell.
In July, 2011, when Sowell was convicted, CBS News reported on several missed opportunities and the changes they brought about. Of the untested April, 2009 rape kit they noted, “The Cleveland Heights Police Department did not have a computerized system to track evidence. Cleveland Heights is not alone. According to the Department of Justice, 43 percent of police departments nationwide do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence. But the department says even if they had submitted the DNA to the state there would not have been a match leading to Sowell’s arrest. That’s because of another critical mistake by another law enforcement agency.” Sowell had previously served 15 years in prison for rape, and gave a DNA sample in 1997, but the profile seems never to have been entered into the state database.
When State Attorney General Mike DeWine launched the Ohio sexual assault kit initiative in late 2011, he announced a “guideline” encouraging all law enforcement agencies to send in any unrest rape kits to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation. “DeWine, a former Greene County prosecutor, said that cost factors and a belief by some police agencies that it wasn’t worth having tests done on evidence if a suspect had not been identified were the main roadblocks to getting all rape kits tested.” He designed the initiative to solve those problems, and hired additional lab staff to test the kits.
A story in this week’s Marion Star says that to date, more 4,956 untested kits have been submitted to the state lab from 110 law enforcement agencies in Ohio. Testing began in 2012, and has now been completed on more than 2300 rape kits. “766 DNA matches in a criminal database” have resulted.
The Plain Dealer has lauded the changes the initiative has brought about, and kept the spotlight on the issue of sexual assault. In an October, 2013 editorial, it said:
The attention that the criminal justice system is finally focusing on rape sends a powerful message to survivors. The very system that marginalized them is now helping to empower them.
But more needs to be done. Only 109 law enforcement agencies have participated in the voluntary initiative — a token number, given that there are 970 such agencies statewide. Where are the rape kits from the other 861?
That lack of response presents a compelling argument for the legislature to pass a bill that mandates rape kit collection and testing.
The Plain Dealer has chronicled the story of the backlogs, the initiative and now the indictments that have resulted from testing previously neglected kits in an in depth series (now on its website) called “A Guide to Reinvestigating Rape: Old Evidence, New Answers.” You can access it online by clicking here.