Told of The Sun’s investigation, a Baltimore County lawmaker said she found the results troubling, and a victims’ advocate called for an investigation, expressing concern about the possibility that serial rapists would never be brought to justice.
The circumstances in Catherine Becket's case underscore a number of shortcomings and inconsistencies in how police departments across Maryland handle rape cases, a Baltimore Sun investigation has found. Evidence has been destroyed in hundreds of cases, complaints are discarded at a high rate, police policies and procedures vary widely between jurisdictions, and victim advocates say Maryland's law creates confusion about when cases can proceed.
The administration also released a statement: “While we can’t speak to the practices of the past, we can certainly speak to the practices of the future and say that this situation will be resolved through best practices and policy changes. It is among the County Executive’s top priorities and that has been proven through action by convening a diverse task force that includes advocacy, students, and police.”
Del. Shelly Hettleman, a Democrat representing Baltimore County, called the new rape kit destruction numbers “very troubling.”
“I introduced a bill in 2017 to prevent destruction of rape kits. Any time I see huge disparity, it’s definitely a cause of concern. I look forward to hearing the rationale for the disparity.”
Baltimore County police spokesman Shawn Vinson said the department could not immediately explain the discrepancy. He said police would be reviewing all rape kits and working on clarifying the number of destroyed rape kits in a review with the task force.
For the second time in less than three years, Baltimore County officials say they will review the way police conduct sexual assault investigations following continued complaints about how authorities handle the cases.
Vinson said the department is limited in what officials can say about the rape kits because of a federal class-action lawsuit that alleges Baltimore County authorities have discriminated against women for years on the basis of gender, denying women “equal access to justice and of equal protection under the law.” The lawsuit alleges systemic indifference to crimes of sexual violence against women and states that kits were regularly destroyed without having been tested for DNA evidence.
Rape kits are the result of a highly invasive hospital examination that can last four or more hours and include blood test results and swabs of DNA samples from semen, and there has been a national push to test more of them.
Historically, the Baltimore County police department destroyed kits because of limited storage space and costs. Its policy was to destroy anonymous kits and those from second-degree sex offense cases in which the victim is not cooperating, when detectives have concluded the case does not meet the legal standard for rape, or when prosecutors decline to prosecute.
Criminal justice advocates have recommended longer retention periods because victims might come forward or new evidence might emerge to help law enforcement convict rape suspects. Many victims of sexual assault are reluctant and might not gather the courage to press charges for months or years because of fear of being retraumatized through the judicial process or retaliation by the suspect.
The Maryland General Assembly has passed legislation requiring testing of most rape kits and adding transparency to the process. The legislation requires forensic testing of evidence collected from a person who says they were a victim of rape, unless the victim does not consent to the testing.
In 2017, the General Assembly passed Hettleman’s legislation to ban rape kit destruction before 20 years.
The Maryland law came one year after Congress passed a similar law requiring kits in federal cases to be kept for the length of the statute of limitations, or a maximum of 20 years.
“Behind each kit is a sexual assault survivor who chose to undergo an invasive and difficult examination,” said Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “The very high discrepancy about the number of rape kits destroyed raises serious concerns about whether rape survivors are receiving the support they need during the criminal process. Each kit also involves a rapist, and without the kits, we will never know if there were [all] separate rapists, or if there are serial offenders we have not identified.”
Maryland has no statute of limitations for most sex offenses, but The Sun investigation found that several jurisdictions had been regularly destroying certain rape kits at the time. The Baltimore region had inconsistent polices relating to rape kit retention. Some jurisdictions destroyed kits as early as a year after they were taken, while others, including Montgomery County, kept kits indefinitely out of concern that the evidence could be helpful later on.