As Human Rights Watch points out, the backlog of untested rape kits in Los Angeles, and the persistent inability of the county to significantly address the problem needs to be considered as not just a law enforcement problem but as a human rights issue because indeed every person has the human right to live free of sexual violence and to have the expectation that those that commit these crimes be brought to justice.
Los Angeles County officials should move urgently to test a backlog of more than 12,000 rape kits – the physical evidence collected after a sexual assault – to ensure justice for rape victims, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.
The 68-page report, “Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County,” reveals that the backlog of untested rape kits in Los Angeles County is larger and more widespread than previously reported. Through dozens of interviews with police officers, public officials, criminalists, rape treatment providers, and rape victims, the report documents the devastating effects of the backlog on victims of sexual abuse.
“Women who are raped have a right to expect police to do all they can to thoroughly investigate their case, but in LA they often feel betrayed to learn that their rape kits are never even tested,” said Sarah Tofte, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s US program and author of the report. “And in some cases, failure to test means that a rapist who could have been arrested will remain free.”
Women who report being raped are asked to undergo a lengthy, extensive examination to collect DNA and other physical evidence that might identify their attacker, corroborate testimony about the assault, or connect their case to other rape crime scene evidence. The resulting rape kit is then booked into police evidence. However, although rape victims may believe it is automatically tested, that is often not the case in Los Angeles County. Rape treatment providers told Human Rights Watch that victims assumed silence from the officers investigating their case simply meant no evidence was found, or that there was no DNA match.
But Human Rights Watch analyzed data from the Los Angeles Police Department, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, and Los Angeles County’s 47 independent police departments, and 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 on for forensic testing.
Of these 12,669 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 past 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 US Congress created to address rape kit backlogs, the effect of which is blunted by the fact that grantees can use the money to test any kind of DNA backlog.