Maryland lawmakers call for uniform police standards on rape kits

State lawmakers are calling for new standards in the way police departments maintain evidence in sexual assault cases, saying authorities need to assure victims that evidence will not be destroyed.

Some legislators said they were outraged by the findings of a recent Baltimore Sun investigation on how sexual-assault cases are handled by police in Maryland. The investigation found that evidence has been destroyed in hundreds of cases and that policies vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction.

The article featured a woman, Catherine Becket, who after waiting three years decided to pursue charges against a man who she says sexually assaulted her. Becket said she was moved to act by news coverage of another woman's sexual assault. But she discovered that Baltimore County police had destroyed her rape kit.

Becket also said the police officer who went to the hospital to take her report after the alleged assault made comments such as "Some guys like it rough" when he interviewed her.

"I was just horrified at how she had been treated," said Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Baltimore County Democrat. "I am so incredibly sad for her because in addition to having been abused by her abuser, she was abused by the system."

The Sun found that different police agencies have varying policies on how long to keep rape kits, which include evidence such as samples of blood and semen collected during a medical examination. While some never destroy rape kits, The Sun found that other police departments in the Baltimore region have destroyed nearly 250 within the past five years without testing them.

Hettleman said she's planning to introduce legislation in the coming General Assembly session that would make law enforcement agencies keep rape kits and other evidence in sexual assault cases for 20 years. The bill also would require police to inform victims in writing of their policies on evidence retention. Police would have to tell victims when they plan to discard evidence, and victims would be able to request preservation.

Congress unanimously passed legislation in September creating a similar Survivors Bill of Rights in federal cases.

"I am hopeful that we can garner the same kind of bipartisan support for this issue" in Maryland, Hettleman said.

More than half of the states have laws mandating a minimum time period to retain evidence in sexual assault cases, according to research by AEquitas, an organization that offers support and training to prosecutors who handle cases of sexual and domestic violence.

Sen. Jim Brochin of Baltimore County said he believes there should be no destruction of evidence. He said legislators need to discuss establishing statewide guidelines about evidence retention so everybody gets "equal justice."

He criticized the current system where one jurisdiction may destroy rape kits after one year and another keeps them indefinitely.

"It makes no sense," he said, especially because there is no statute of limitations for most sexual offenses. "In certain jurisdictions you are denying justice because, for whatever reason, victims are waiting to come forward."

He said another reason to retain evidence is that it could help catch serial rapists.

The Baltimore County Police Department is the subject of several reviews of how it investigates sexual assaults, including one by the Maryland Coalition against Sexual Assault, which is working with retired Judge Barbara Howe. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said in a statement that the county is "committed to becoming a nationwide model in its handling of these very difficult cases."

State Del. Kathleen M. Dumais, a Montgomery County Democrat, said there should be a statewide policy to preserve rape kits.

"It's simple, easy and appropriate to have a statewide policy," Dumais said. "A statewide policy would make good sense so that it's not an individual's decision about storage space or because one victim did not decide to come forward right away."

Montgomery County police do not discard any sexual assault kits.

Dumais believes there needs to be a bill in the coming session and has already drafted separate legislation to clarify that prosecutors wouldn't have to prove a victim physically resisted an attacker to prove force was used.

State Sen. Susan McComas, a Harford County Republican and member of the House Judiciary Committee, said abuse and rape are "a nonpartisan issue that everybody cares about."

McComas said House and Senate committees should look into standardization of sexual assault evidence. She said she's not sure changes would require legislation, but she would like to hear from advocates, prosecutors, public defenders and other stakeholders and learn about the costs and benefits.

Del. Frank M. Conaway Jr., a Baltimore Democrat who also sits on the Judiciary Committee, said he has submitted legislation for the coming session that would require every law enforcement agency to regularly report statistics on sexual assault DNA collection and analysis to the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention.

"The first step is to see if every kit has been analyzed, then we'll see if the genetic signature is enough to retain, or if we also need to maintain the actual evidence," he said.

Conaway said his legislation would mean that the governor's office would be able to audit what is happening across the state.

Another committee member, Del. Charles E. Sydnor III, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he thinks statewide standardization would make sense, but he suspects he and other supporters might get push-back from jurisdictions who are generally against policies that apply to both large and small police departments.

"But I think as a Maryland citizen, whether your rape kit was destroyed or examined shouldn't be based on where the crime occurred."

Police departments in Maryland have left more than 3,500 rape kits untested, according to data The Sun received under a public-information request. The state attorney general's office is working on a report and recommendations about testing of rape kits, set to be released in the next few weeks.

Hettleman said she is also exploring possible legislation that would require testing of all rape kits, as some states do.

Some police officials have said that they don't always find evidentiary value in testing rape kits. For instance, when victims know the perpetrators, their identity is not in question.

Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger said that if lawmakers require more testing, they need to ensure there is funding for local crime labs to do so.

"If the legislature is going to demand that all rape kits are tested, then I hope they will put the funding behind it to hire additional DNA technicians," he said.

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