I-Team

I-Team finds untested rape kits in the Bay Area

Monday, May 13, 2013
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The ABC7 News I-Team reveals that Bay Area law enforcement agencies are not always testing DNA evidence collected in rape investigations. Thousands of untested sexual assault kits are sitting on shelves of local police departments.

Advocates and survivors tell us all sexual assault kits should be tested. It could help convict the attacker and possibly link him to other crimes and at the very least, it sends the message to the victim that police are taking the crime seriously.

"Sexual assault crimes are some of the most horrendous crimes that could happen to somebody," said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.

O'Malley is on a mission to test every sexual assault kit in her county. She is starting with almost 2,000 kits sitting in police property rooms.

"It makes no sense not to take that amazing tool that's been developed in the criminal justice arena and look at it to see if we can solve some sexual assault crimes," O'Malley says.

In San Francisco, police are required to test all kits, since a city ordinance took effect in 2010. However, ABC7 News I-Team found police didn't go back and test kits before the ordinance took effect. So far, SFPD officials have found 196 untested sexual assault kits on property room shelves from 2009 and 2010. They are now reviewing all 196 cases.

Our investigation has led to an audit of the property room to see if there are any other untested kits from before 2009.

"Short of a homicide, where you don't have the victim to talk to, I don't know that there's another event that could be more traumatizing than a sexual assault," San Francisco Police Chief Greg Suhr says.

We also surveyed some departments in Santa Clara County and found not all kits there are tested. In the city of Santa Clara, the police collected 45 sexual assault kits from 2009 through 2012. Seven were sent for testing. The department has a total of 49 untested kits in its property room.

"We test our kits that are required to be tested to prosecute a case," according to lt. Kurt Clarke of the Santa Clara Police Department.

The Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety collected 53 kits from 2009 through 2012. Twelve were sent for testing. The department says it has 207 untested sexual assault kits in its property room.

"We didn't send them down for a reason initially. It was either because there was no physical evidence there or it was a known suspect that has been referred to the district attorney's office and we defer to them whether they get sent down or not," according to Capt. Dave Pitts of the Sunnyvale Police Department.

San Jose has over 1,800 sexual assault kits its property room.

Terry Harman oversees the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Sexual Assault Unit. She says DNA testing is not always necessary in solving the crime, for example, if a suspect confesses.

"There's other evidence of a crime that at the time of issuing, the SART kit is not a necessary component," Harman says.

The agencies told us they always test sexual assault kits when the suspect is unknown or the suspect is known and denies sexual contact.

They do not test the kits if the suspect is known and consent is not an issue, they believe no biological evidence was collected during the exam, or if the victim doesn't want to move forward with the case.

Not testing kits like is "almost like re-victimizing the victims," according Natasha Alexenko.

Alexenko is a sexual assault survivor and advocate. She believes all kits need to be tested, even when the suspect is known. She says not testing might leave a criminal on the streets.

"We have the tools to tie them to other crimes and we're not using it. I mean what a failure of justice," Alexenko says.

Alexenko is helping Alameda County and other agencies across the country raise private funds to test the evidence. It can cost $800 to $1,200 to test a single kit.

But Alexenko says the push to test more kits starts with police.

Alexenko says, "Get them out of the police custody. Get them out of police stations, out of county storage facilities. That's where most of the rape kits are."

Ian Fitch is the director of the Santa Clara county crime lab. Although he believes every kit should be tested, he would want to make sure procedures are in place to make the practice effective.

"The caveat is that we just can't put it on a conveyor belt and work that SART kit without having the background information to know again, you know, what is the nature of the case? And does it deserve the prioritization?" according to Fitch.

Every agency we spoke with in Santa Clara County felt the same way.

"It can be done. We have the kits here. We just have to take it from point A, being the police department evidence room, to point B, to the lab," says Clarke.

"I'd be an advocate of putting as much DNA in the database as possible," believes Pitts.

"To the extent SART kits, all SART kits could be tested, you certainly wouldn't get an objection from members on the Sexual Assault Team," according to Harman.

It is now up to the agencies and officials of Santa Clara County to decide if they want to put procedures in place to test all sexual assault kits. Money might be a factor. Cash-strapped departments may not be able to afford testing every kit, but it could be worth it. Officials in Detroit said when they tested 154 kits in their backlog, 20 serial rapists were identified.

(Copyright ©2014 KGO-TV. All Rights Reserved.)

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Tags:
SFPD, sex crimes, crime, san francisco general hospital, greg suhr, i-team, dan noyes
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