(New York, October 29, 2008) - The approval of 16 additional Los Angeles Police Department crime lab positions today by the City Council is only one step in addressing the backlog of 7,300 cases in which rape evidence has not been tested, Human Rights Watch said. The city needs to prepare and implement a more comprehensive plan to address the problem of untested "rape kits," the physical evidence, including DNA, collected after a sexual assault.
"The rape-kit backlog is not simply a crime-lab capacity problem," said Sarah Tofte, researcher with the US Program at Human Rights Watch. "The city needs a plan to improve the entire process of investigating and prosecuting rape cases. That is what will be meaningful to victims."
On October 28, 2008, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Police Chief William Bratton, and Councilmember Jack Weiss announced an agreement to increase crime-lab capacity by 30 employees in the next six months. Some City Council members have described this as "the plan" to eliminate the backlog in untested kits.
In previous public comments before the City Council, Human Rights Watch has warned that an approach based solely on increasing crime-lab capacity would not solve the problem.
A comprehensive plan should include:
- A commitment to promptly test the rape-kit evidence in every future case;
- A commitment that the newly approved lab positions will be used to eliminate the backlog;
- A process to ensure that test results are turned into investigative leads;
- A process to notify detectives, prosecutors, or any other branch of law enforcement responsible for investigating sex crimes, when a DNA profile from a rape kit matches a profile in the DNA database (a "cold hit") occurs on a rape kit profile; and
- A commitment and a process to notify rape victims about the results of their rape kit test.
Several jurisdictions that have tried to eliminate their rape-kit backlogs without a long-term plan have failed to improve their records on rape cases. Illinois tried to eliminate its backlog without a comprehensive plan, and three years later it still lacks the capacity to upload the profiles or create investigative leads from cold hits. New York City, the one jurisdiction that has carried out a comprehensive plan, succeeded in completely clearing its rape kit-backlog. The resulting cold hits have led to at least 200 rape convictions to date.
Timely testing of rape kits can be critical to bringing justice to sexual assault victims. It is often difficult to solve or prosecute a rape case effectively without this forensic evidence. Furthermore, under California law, there is no statute of limitations for bringing a case if the rape kit is tested within two years. But if it is not tested in that time frame, the statute of limitations is 10 years.
"The bottom line is that tackling the backlog is not a goal in itself, but a crucial step for improving and increasing investigations of rape cases, and in appropriate cases, arrests and prosecutions," Tofte said.