DETROIT— Some U.S. cities are pushing through heavy backlogs of unprocessed sexual assault evidence from cases that span decades, while Detroit's more methodical approach is aimed at solving cases and ensuring against repeated problems that led to a stockpile of more than 11,000 rape kits.
The downside is limited funding means it could take months — even years — for police, prosecutors and university researchers to pore over Detroit's backlogged rape kits and deliver justice to victims seeking closure. Meanwhile, some advocacy groups say an estimated 180,000 to 400,000 kits wait for testing nationwide with new cases being reported daily.
"This is not an anomaly. This is happening all across the country," said Mary Morrow, an assistant Wayne County prosecutor and project coordinator for the Detroit team. "The goal is to determine how this happened? How to solve it and how to prevent it from happening again."
State police saw the unprocessed rape kits in 2009 while inspecting the Detroit Crime Lab that was closed a year earlier for improperly handling weapons evidence. The kits are being tested in batches. Phase one looked at 400 kits. Phase two will test about 1,600 sexual assault kits from the backlog.
"Once a kit is pulled to go out to testing, depending on which lab, the general window is between three and six months," said Rebecca Campbell, a Michigan State University psychology professor working on Detroit's backlog. "The other issue is once it is tested the results have to be verified and have to be checked. In Michigan and a lot of places, kits are outsourced to private labs then have to come back to police who have to verify the work. It takes time. It could be another three to six months."
Two years ago, Houston's city council approved $4.2 million in contracts for four companies to process a backlog of about 4,000 rape kits, including evidence going back to 1994.
An audit by the Los Angeles City Controller's office in 2008 found a backlog of more than 7,000 untested kits. More than 200 had passed the statute of limitations for prosecution. The Los Angeles Police Department has cleared most of the backlog and all of the kits from pre-2008.
"Some of these rape kits stored and taken into custody before the (DNA testing) technology was full bloom," said Suzette Samuels, head of the Wayne County prosecutor's office sexual assault team. "Combine that with an increased case load and more reporting at a time when resources are dwindling."
The numbers in Los Angeles were so massive that extra help was needed for testing.
Some kits were sent to outside contractors as the Los Angeles Police Department began hiring and training qualified DNA analysts, said Yvette Burney, commanding officer of the LAPD Scientific Investigations Division. About $8 million to $9 million from the city's general fund, grants and private donations through the police foundation was used for testing and hiring 90 analysts, support staff and supervisors.
"We didn't have enough in-house staff to tackle it in a timely fashion," she said.
When the rape kits are sent out for testing, labs have 70 days to return them to the police department. The results are then reviewed and decisions are made as to which DNA samples will be entered in the FBI's DNA database, Burney said.
In Detroit, police knew their kits were in a secondary storage facility toured in 2009 by their own officers, state police and prosecutors, Detroit Police Commander Robert Ennis said.
All the kits in storage had been entered in the department's computerized property system, he added.
"We don't destroy that evidence (rape kits)," Ennis said. "We knew they were there. There were a lot of kits that were never tested, including the ones when the victims did not file police reports or decided not to prosecute. As we continue to work with our partners in the Michigan State Police and the Wayne County Prosecutor's office, it is believed that the numbers may actually be lower than what preliminary results have shown."
The Detroit Sexual Assault Kit Action Research Project is getting about $1 million from the National Institute for Justice, the Justice Department's research arm. Michigan State Police have allocated $1 million of its Backlog Reduction funds for the project, which includes testing.
Houston's Action Research to Enhance Investigations and Prosecutions of Sexual Assaults is getting just under that amount, but that city's police department also is getting $1.5 million for its Forensic DNA Backlog Reduction Program.
Nationally, the cost to test rape kits varies by lab. The Detroit rape kits can cost $1,200 to $1,500 to test, Samuels said.
"I think we don't have a handle on it," Campbell said. "There have not been adequate resources that have been put into rape kit testing. Police don't have funding for sex crimes and neither do prosecutors."
Some states have put rules in place for such testing.
In Texas, rape kits have to be submitted within 30 days. The deadline for completion is "soon as practicable" if sufficient personnel and resources are available, according to state Sen. Wendy Davis' office.
That allows for a public accredited lab to contract with a private accredited lab to expedite the analyses.
In Illinois, police have to get all rape kits analyzed within six months. Police agencies are required to submit evidence in sexual assault and rape cases to the Illinois State Police laboratory or one approved by that agency within 10 business days.
Michigan has no such law, further delaying the wait for justice and personal closure for victims in cases that may have span a decade or two.
Prosecutors had no idea about Detroit's rape kit stockpile until the state police reported them in 2009.
"It was a surprise," Morrow said. "We need to find out the story behind each of those kits. We expect to find some have been tested. Most of them weren't tested."