Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine deserves great credit for his efforts to test neglected DNA evidence — much of it more than a decade old — that can solve cold cases and clear innocent suspects.
Mr. DeWine started calling for old DNA evidence in late 2011, encouraging Ohio’s nearly 800 law enforcement agencies to clear their testable sexual-assault evidence shelves, following media reports that many kits remained in storage. As of late last month, 137 law enforcement agencies in Ohio have submitted 7,624 previously untested rape kits for testing by forensic scientists with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation.
A former U.S. senator, Mr. DeWine saw an appalling and inexcusable problem, and used the power of his office to fix it. That’s what elected officials are supposed to do. But untested rape kits have come to state crime laboratories, which started working on old cases in 2012, faster than the labs can clear them. As of June 1, BCI completed DNA testing of 3,807 rape kits — about half the total of old cases.
David Pepper, Mr. DeWine’s Democratic challenger in this year’s election for state attorney general, told The Blade’s editorial page that the backlog could be erased by forming partnerships with local crime labs. The number of old, untested rape kits, he said, has almost doubled during the last 16 months.
Mr. DeWine points out, correctly, that without his intervention, the old rape kits would still be gathering dust in local police storage areas. His office offered to test the biological evidence for free and practically shamed local jurisdictions into finding and sending the kits to state crime labs.
That said, the kits should be tested as quickly as possible. Given the number of kits waiting to be tested, it’s reasonable to enlist the help of regional crime labs that are willing and able to do the work.
Mr. DeWine points out that since he took office in January, 2011, average waiting periods for the testing of new DNA evidence have dropped from 125 days to 23 days, despite a doubling or even tripling of caseloads. In emergency cases, the kits can be tested within 24 hours.
To keep current on new cases, Mr. DeWine’s office has separated them from old cases, assigning 10 scientists to work on old untested evidence. Staffing for DNA cases and the technology that supports it has increased significantly. That’s all good, but these welcome improvements don’t mitigate the need to clear the thousands of untested old kits as soon as possible.
BCI scientists now test more than 300 kits a month, said BCI Superintendent Tom Stickrath. The tests get matches in DNA databases in about one in three cases. At that rate, BCI scientists could erase the backlog in about a year. No one knows, however, how many more old DNA kits will be sent to state crime labs.
At least a handful of regional crime labs in Ohio are willing and able to do the work, and do it well. The Hamilton County coroner endorses Mr. Pepper’s plan, suggesting that the attorney general’s office collaborate with that county’s crime lab. Mr. Pepper vows, if he is elected, to work with the General Assembly to get the money needed to clear all untested rape kits within 150 days of his taking office.
Mr. DeWine told The Blade that he has no plans to outsource the testing of old DNA kits to regional labs. He ought to reconsider. As he well knows, each piece of biological evidence is potentially crucial. Every day matters.