'Disturbing' rape kit investigation prompts action in several states

The Washington attorney general said Tuesday he will notify every law enforcement agency in his state and di...

Posted: Dec 5, 2018 2:18 PM
Updated: Dec 5, 2018 2:18 PM

The Washington attorney general said Tuesday he will notify every law enforcement agency in his state and direct them to ensure that rape kits are not being inappropriately destroyed. His action comes in response to a CNN investigation into the destruction of rape kits nationwide and on the heels of a Missouri police chief's apology to victims.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the destruction of kits by a police department in his state "disturbing" and directed state police to contact the agency and ensure it is "complying with state law regarding the handling of rape kits."

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Meanwhile, the group credited with convincing state legislators to enact laws requiring the testing of rape kits said it will push for the addition of language that prohibits destruction of the evidence.

CNN's investigation "shined a bright light on a largely unknown" problem, said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart foundation, a non-profit whose program End the Backlog focuses on untested rape kits.

"You can't say all kits should be tested if kits are destroyed," Knecht said.

End the Backlog altered its model legislation Monday to add a provision prohibiting destruction. It says: "Kits associated with a reported crime that is uncharged or unsolved should be preserved for 50 years or the length of the statute of limitations, whichever is greater."

The CNN investigation was published last week and revealed that 25 law enforcement agencies in 14 states destroyed rape kits in 400 cases before the statutes of limitations expired or when there was no time limit to prosecute.

The number is likely higher than 400. There are an estimated 17,000 law enforcement agencies in the country; CNN surveyed 207. CNN's analysis was based on records provided by the departments that reported destroying kits.

The destruction occurred since 2010 and often followed flawed and incomplete investigations that relegated rape kits to shelves in police evidence rooms until they were destroyed. Dozens were trashed mere weeks or months after police took custody of the evidence, records showed.

Almost 80% were never tested for DNA evidence, a process that can identify a suspect or link that person to other crimes.

Since 2016, End the Backlog has successfully pushed for the passage of 34 laws and four resolutions in 26 states concerning the testing of rape kits, Knecht said. Its model legislation influenced the wording of laws requiring analysis of rape kits in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Texas and elsewhere.

Georgia state Rep. Scott Holcomb told CNN he plans to use End the Backlog's new legislative language to introduce a bill prohibiting the destruction of rape kits in unsolved and uncharged cases when the legislature reconvenes next year. He drafted legislation passed in 2016 requiring the testing of backlogged kits in Georgia.

CNN's investigation was "powerful," he said, and he wants to make sure it's illegal to destroy a rape kit in his state.

CNN surveyed three law enforcement departments in Georgia, asking whether the agencies destroyed any rape kits since 2010. All of them reported that they had not. But there are more than 600 agencies in the state, and Holcomb wants to be sure it isn't happening, or hasn't happened, anywhere. If it has, he wants it stopped.

"There's no excuse for this to happen," said Holcomb, a former prosecutor. "The system has failed and continues to fail. I hate to say it but the basic reason [this happened] is because women aren't believed when they report these crimes."

Read more: How CNN reported on rape kit destruction

CNN found that the Seattle Police Department destroyed at least 18 kits while the cases could still be prosecuted. Police officials told CNN the department stopped destroying kits after it identified the practice earlier this year.

While decrying destruction, Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson praised the Seattle Police Department for "taking responsibility and revisiting its protocols."

"Every kit," he said in a written statement, "is a story that deserves to be told."

Read more: Law enforcement agencies respond to CNN's rape kit investigation

Destroying rape kits "is not who we want to be as a community," said Emily Petersen, a senior prosecutor who handles sex crimes in King County, where Seattle is located.

"We never want to be in a position where we have to tell a victim that we can't prosecute their case because we don't have their rape kit," she told CNN.

Petersen stressed the importance of testing and retaining kits and adopting a victim-centered approach to investigating and prosecuting sex crimes.

In New York, CNN found the Jamestown Police Department destroyed at least two kits tied to cases police described as first-degree rapes, which carried no statutes of limitations. Dani Lever, a spokeswoman for the governor, related Cuomo's reaction to CNN. And US Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand issued a statement calling the destruction "deeply offensive to the survivors of these horrific crimes."

"I am extremely disturbed that some police departments around the country have been brazenly destroying this crucial evidence, even before the statute of limitations has ended -- something they almost certainly would not do for any other violent crime," she said.

In Michigan -- where CNN found the Lapeer Police Department had destroyed at least 10 kits, including five belonging to minors -- officials from the Michigan Women's Commission called the findings "disheartening."

"Without this valuable evidence, our justice system cannot hold those who commit these crimes accountable, nor can survivors receive the justice so necessary to the healing process," said Mary Engleman, executive director of the commission, which is part of the civil rights department.

"We are supportive of the Lapeer Police Department's efforts to address insufficiencies identified by the CNN investigation and call on every law enforcement agency in the state to review all relevant policies and procedures to assure survivors maintain the opportunity to pursue justice in our courts."

Kym Worthy, the Wayne County, Michigan, prosecutor whose testing of some 10,000 backlogged rape kits has identified at least 833 suspects linked to more than one sex crime, said CNN's investigation should be required reading for anyone in the criminal justice system.

"It has been almost a decade since the Detroit kits were found and this treatise made my blood boil. I am more outraged, infuriated, and incensed than I was then," Worthy said. "The next person that knowingly destroys a sexual assault kit needs to go to jail. I do not know how anyone that claims to be human can continue to ignore this issue in this country after reading this truth."

Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley's office did not respond to CNN's requests for comment on destruction in Springfield, Missouri, which CNN featured in its investigation.

On Friday, Springfield Police Chief Paul Williams issued an apology video to sexual assault victims. He told local reporters the department would end its practice of giving victims a 10-day deadline to engage with investigators and offering them prosecution waiver forms before completing thorough investigations.

A spokesman for US Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri said the lawmaker was "concerned" by CNN's findings. "Nothing is more important in these cases than physical evidence that corroborates the victim."

Read more: Where police failed rape victims

In California, two lawmakers reacted to CNN's investigation on Twitter.

US Sen. Kamala Harris called the report "devastating." US Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents the Oakland and Berkeley areas, said it was "absolutely outrageous."

In Idaho, where CNN found five agencies that destroyed kits, state Rep. Melissa Wintrow said she hoped CNN's investigation would send a clear message to police agencies throughout the country: If somebody reports this crime, vigorously investigate it.

"The entire country has to do better on this crime," said Wintrow, who sponsored a state law, enacted last year, that mandates retention of some kits for up to 55 years.

"We have to increase our training," she said, "we have to understand bias, and we need to understand trauma-informed care and interviewing."

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