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Published: Tuesday, 2/26/2013

Test the rape kits

DeWine DeWine
NOT BLADE PHOTO Enlarge

DNA evidence is an important tool for law enforcement, in solving crimes and exonerating innocent suspects. Such evidence is especially useful in rape cases.

Police agencies in Ohio and around the country have collected tens of thousands of rape kits. They contain biological evidence that could prove that suspects included in the growing DNA data banks are guilty or innocent. Ohio’s database has nearly 500,000 samples.

But rape kits can help solve crimes only if they’re tested. In Ohio and nationally, tens of thousands of DNA kits sit idle.

The litany of excuses for such backlogs includes costs and lack of resources. But bureaucratic inertia, incompetence, and failure to realize the importance of this technology are probably more to blame. It’s appalling that many rape kits should gather dust, after rape victims endure invasive exams, which can take hours, to provide DNA evidence to help catch their assailants.

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Consisting of small boxes, rape kits typically include microscope slides and plastic bags for storing evidence such as clothing fibers, hair, saliva, semen, or other bodily fluids. In 2011, Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine encouraged the state’s nearly 800 law enforcement agencies to clear their testable sexual-assault evidence shelves, after media outlets reported that many kits remained in storage.

Police agencies across Ohio have sent more than 2,300 untested rape kits to a state crime laboratory for testing that could help solve hundreds of sexual-assault cases, some from decades ago. Nearly half the kits submitted came from the Cleveland Police Department. Toledo police have submitted more than 200 kits.

Once Ohio catches up with the testing, it must ensure that protocols and funding — getting each kit tested can cost $1,200 to $1,500 — are in place to prevent further backlogs. If the problem persists, the state ought to consider legislation that would require law-enforcement agencies to submit rape kits for laboratory analysis within, say, six months.

Testing matches don’t necessarily mean a rape case is solved. But they can provide leads, confirm suspects, identify serial rapists, and exonerate the victims of wrongful convictions. Mr. DeWine worked to get federal money to help local departments catch up with testing their kits.

The problem is nationwide. In Detroit in 2009, an assistant prosecutor found more than 10,000 untested rape kits among stacks of dusty boxes in a former police storage warehouse. A kit from 2002 showed the DNA of a man who was in prison for the murders of three women — all of which were committed during the seven years the rape kit sat in the warehouse. Chicago, Los Angeles, and Houston also have grappled with thousands of untested rape kits.

DNA evidence is not without controversy. In a few cases, people who committed crimes planted fake DNA samples at crime scenes.

Critics, including some criminal defense attorneys, object to new laws that require anyone arrested on a felony charge to submit a DNA sample, even if that person is cleared of a crime. New state and federal standards on DNA testing may be needed to ensure this valuable technology is not abused.

Even so, these concerns do not mitigate the need for states such as Ohio to eliminate their backlogs of untested rape kits, and to keep current on testing. Justice, in prosecuting the guilty and exonerating the innocent, depends on it



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