Thousands of rape kits go untested in Maryland

In this Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 photo, a standard testing kit used in rape cases is laid out on a table.
In this Friday, Oct. 7, 2016 photo, a standard testing kit used in rape cases is laid out on a table. (Shawn Gust / AP)

Despite a years-long, national push to collect, process and catalog DNA evidence from sexual assaults, police in Maryland have left more than 3,500 rape kits untested.

Advocates for rape victims say that number shows that police are not investigating all complaints of sexual assault thoroughly.


"More than any other crime, sexual assault survivors are often disbelieved or blamed for what happened to them," said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for counting and testing all kits. "That definitely plays into this process of not fully investigating cases. There sometimes is a bias that comes in that kind of shuts that door too quickly, and those cases are just put on a shelf."

But police and prosecutors say that testing the kits in many cases does not advance an investigation, especially when the victim and perpetrator know each other.


"If there's no issue about who the person is, then DNA doesn't really contribute anything," said Baltimore County State's Attorney Scott Shellenberger.

The General Assembly required police departments in Maryland to report their numbers this year to the attorney general's office and to explain why kits remained untested. The Baltimore Sun obtained their responses through a request under the Maryland Public Information Act.

More than 3,500 kits remain untested, the police departments reported. They gave several reasons for not testing kits: A victim declines to pursue charges, or prosecutors decide against taking the case. The victim already knew the suspect, or wanted to remain anonymous.

The Baltimore Police Department reported 871 untested rape kits, the second-largest number in the state. Montgomery County police reported the most, with 1,165. Both said some date back to the 1980s.


The attorney general's office is set to release a report on the numbers in December, with recommendations on what to do with untested kits.

State Sen. Karen S. Montgomery sponsored the legislation last year that required police to report the numbers.

"Women were not being taken seriously enough to have kits tested and used as evidence," said the Montgomery County Democrat, who has since retired from the legislature.

She said several victims sought her help after they felt their cases had been "brushed off" by police.

Montgomery said she approached those police departments, and some couldn't find the rape kits.

"They were very careful to be polite," Montgomery said, "but their attitude was, 'We don't have time for this.'

"Unfortunately, this is typical of Maryland and around the nation."

A rape kit contains evidence, such as samples of blood and semen collected during a medical examination of a person who has reported a sexual assault.

Now that departments have reported numbers, Montgomery said, the next step should be better investigations and prosecutions of all assaults — with a special effort on using rape kits to find and prosecute repeat offenders.

Some in law enforcement say rape kits are not always helpful.

When the perpetrator's identity is not in question, Shellenberger said, a rape kit adds little to the prosecution.

"There is no dispute that these are the right two people," he said. "The dispute will be in another area, which is consent. ...

"We have to make a decision about how to best use our resources. If it's not advancing a case or we can't go forward, then it's not" the best use.

It can cost more than $1,000 to process a single rape kit.

Advocates for victims say there is still value to testing kits from assaults in which the victim knows the perpetrator: They can yield DNA that connects the rapist to attacks in which the perpetrator remains unidentified.

The U.S. Department of Justice cited untested rape kits this year in its scathing report on the Baltimore Police Department.

Between 2010 and September 2014, Justice Department investigators reported in August, "rape kits were tested in only 15 percent of BPD's cases involving sexual assaults of adult victims."

Baltimore police say the testing rate is much higher.

Steven O'Dell, chief of the Baltimore police forensics lab, said analysts currently test between 80 percent and 100 percent of rape kits every month.

Rape kits are not the only evidence from sex crimes that police test. Since 2010, O'Dell said, police have tested evidence from about 80 percent of the sexual offense cases it receives each month. That includes rape kits and other evidence.

The 871 untested kits the department reported to the state were out of roughly 7,000 kits since 1986, according to the department. That means the department has tested about 88 percent of kits it has collected over the last 30 years.

Capt. Steven L. Hohman Jr., who heads the department's Special Investigation Section, said investigators have not always recorded on paper when they have ordered a rape kit tested.

Hohman, who took over the department in January, said he wasn't sure how the Justice Department calculated its numbers, but the police electronic evidence-tracking databases were more accurate than the investigatory paper files.

Capt. Paul Starks, a spokesman for the Montgomery County department, said the agency never destroys rape kits, as some agencies do, which might explain why its number leads the state.

Congress appropriated $41 million in grant funding in 2014 to help state and local police departments clear rape kit backlogs, and Vice President Joe Biden last year visited the Maryland State Police Forensic Science Laboratory in Pikesville to draw attention to the effort.

"Thousands of women right now are looking over their shoulder," he said at the time. "Thousands of them wonder, 'Will he come back?'"

No Maryland agency was awarded a federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant in 2015 or 2016.

Delays in testing kits drew attention in Maryland in 2014 when The Baltimore Sun reported on the case of a serial rapist who went undetected. The man raped a woman in 2012. By the time police processed the DNA nearly two years later, he had attacked again.

President Barack Obama signed legislation this month that will give victims the right to be informed of test results from rape kits, to be notified at least 60 days in advance of any plan to dispose of a kit and to request its preservation.

The Survivors Bill of Rights Act, as the legislation is known, applies to federal crimes, not to state criminal cases.

Some states have taken steps to standardize handling of rape kits.

Connecticut requires local police departments to submit all kits to the state crime lab within 10 days, and the lab to process them within 60. Ohio also has established time frames for testing. Some states have requirements to notify victims of the status of their kits.

Rebecca Campbell, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, was the principal investigator for a Justice Department-funded report on untested kits in Detroit.

"When you look at the police reports associated with untested kits," she said, "what you see is they often didn't believe victims, they didn't do thorough investigations."


The researchers found that investigators who tested rape kits in attacks by perpetrators known to the victims were as likely to get a match in the FBI's DNA database as in rapes by strangers.


"What that suggests is that when you test non-stranger kits, it's an opportunity to find out if that perpetrator has sexually assaulted other folks," Campbell said.

Prosecutors in Detroit reported that more than 11,000 kits had not been tested in 2009. Today, about 10,000 of those kits have been tested.

The Wayne County prosecutor's office says testing has identified 775 serial offenders, and helped prosecutors to secure 64 convictions.

Lisae Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the untested kits in Maryland are part of a larger concern about how seriously sexual assault cases are investigated.

She said the state should give police departments clear guidelines on testing kits. She said increased testing — even in cases where both people known each other — could help identify serial offenders.

"We can't assume that just because a survivor knows the assailant, that the information in the kit is not relevant to other cases," Jordan said.


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