Thousands more untested rape kits revealed in Maryland as authorities ramp up efforts to process evidence

Ten of the largest police departments in Maryland reported having more than 6,500 untested rape kits early this year — nearly double the 3,397 untested kits they reported in a statewide audit in 2016, according to new records recently obtained by The Baltimore Sun through a public records request.

Police say the dramatic increase in untested rape kits is largely due to a new state law requiring authorities to retain the kits for at least 20 years. But it’s also because Prince George’s County reported more than 2,000 older untested kits that had not been included in the previous audit.

Maryland is now among more than 20 states that have passed laws in recent years requiring authorities to retain or process untested kits. Late discoveries of thousands of abandoned, untested rape evidence kits in cities such as Detroit, Houston and Cleveland have led to hundreds of convictions of sexual assault offenders.

Police in several jurisdictions told The Sun that most of the untested kits represent cases that they are taking a fresh look at.

Karen S. Montgomery, a retired state senator from Montgomery County who sponsored legislation in 2015 that required police to report untested rape kits, said the growing number of untested kits was “outrageous,” but not unexpected.

For decades, she said, law enforcement held “a prejudice against women who claimed rape and were reluctant to vigorously investigate it.”

“That is beginning to change,” she said. “Women are more involved in the process and are saying that this is a crime and I’m not tolerating this anymore.”

Rape kits, also known as sexual assault evidence kits, are used to collect evidence from the body and clothing of someone who claims or is believed to be the victim of a rape or other kind of sexual assault.

Maryland police officials say the rising number of untested kits across the state is a different circumstance than cities like Detroit, in that Maryland’s do not represent a “backlog” of ignored evidence. Many older kits in Maryland had already been reviewed and purposely not tested, according to police.

Police in Maryland gave several reasons for not testing kits beforehand: A victim declined to pursue charges; prosecutors decided against taking the case; the victim wanted to remain anonymous; DNA testing at the time was too expensive. There are also untested kits from cases where the DNA belonged to a known suspect, which some counties — including Baltimore County — have not traditionally tested even though such DNA has helped find repeat offenders elsewhere.

Alexandria Ciccone said that when she reported her rape in May 2013 and underwent a sexual assault forensic exam at Mercy Medical Center, she did so as an anonymous “Jane Doe” and chose not to pursue charges at the time. But when she did come forward two years later, it was too late. She found out that her kit had not only never been tested, but that it had been destroyed.

“I should be shocked,” Ciccone said of the growing number of untested kits.

The Sun typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Ciccone has been among those who told her story publicly to lobby for legislation requiring longer retention of rape kits. She said she thought police were counting the older untested kits and reviewing cases “because someone else is lighting a fire telling them to do this.”

Ilsa Knecht, a policy director for Joyful Heart Foundation, a national rape survivors advocacy organization, said it’s not uncommon for agencies to find hundreds of untested kits once they start doing audits.

“These numbers are fluid,” she said.

Table: Untested sexual assault forensic examination kits in Maryland »

The new numbers come from a survey of untested rape kits sent to police departments by the Maryland Attorney General’s office in March. The office wanted updated untested kit numbers so it could apply for federal funding to help process some of the evidence, said Raquel Coombs, a spokeswoman for the office.

The state eventually won the $2.6 million federal grant to help process many of the kits, create a better evidence tracking system and hire survivor advocates.

Police classified most of the untested kits, or 4,638, as “unable to categorize.” According to police, most of these are years-old and sometimes decades-old cases police are re-reviewing to see whether there is a viable prosecution.

Police marked about 25 percent, or 1,732 of the untested kits, as “awaiting testing,” according to the survey responses. About 400 kits were from anonymous “Jane Does,” which are generally not tested in Maryland, and an additional 82 kits, or about 1 percent, were “unfounded,” meaning either no rape occurred or it was a false accusation. Police generally do not test unfounded cases.

The Attorney General’s office sent a survey to 13 police departments that represented 90 percent of the untested kits in the 2016 audit. Nine agencies responded. The Baltimore Sun reached out to the four that did not respond. The Carroll County Sheriff’s Office and Salisbury Police Department did not respond either to the survey or to The Sun’s inquiries. The Calvert County’s Sheriff Department responded with its updated number of untested kits. The Cambridge Police Department responded to The Sun, reporting 29 untested kits.

Prince George’s County had the biggest increase, reporting 2,747 untested kits, which is up from 99 in 2016, according to the survey.

Prince George’s police spokeswoman Jennifer Donelan told The Sun that most of the additional untested kits come from stored DNA evidence from older sexual assault cases. She said a now-terminated DNA lab manager had reported inaccurate numbers in the 2016 audit.

“Our new laboratory manager estimates we will be analyzing about 900 of those older cases simply to preserve DNA profiles,” Donelan said. “In terms of our current case load, right now, we have a total of 60 sexual assault kits pending analysis for prosecution, which is down from 99 in 2016.”

Montgomery County reported 1,510 untested kits, the second-highest number reported.

Most of Montgomery’s untested kits also represent older sexual assault cases that police are researching now to determine what to process, according to Lt. Jordan Satinsky.

Better technology and less expensive DNA testing have enabled police to take a fresh look at cases, Satinsky said. Police have been reaching out to victims and reviewing evidence and so far, another 400 kits have been tested this year and another 200 are expected to be tested in coming months, he said.

“We’re better at testing now,” Satinsky said. “We’re trying to help these victims in a better way.”

He said Montgomery police test most of the current sexual assault cases as they come through.

Some of the counties, including Montgomery, Prince George’s and Howard, held onto rape evidence much longer than other departments, helping to explain their relatively high numbers.

Before legislation passed last year requiring agencies to hold on to kits for 20 years, some police agencies were destroying kits months or years after examination. An investigation by The Sun found Baltimore County had been discarding certain kits as early as one year after the exam.

The number of untested kits in Baltimore County increased nearly 60 percent, from 197 kits to 310. The number of untested kits in Anne Arundel County nearly doubled from 207 to 394.

Spokespeople from Anne Arundel and Baltimore County departments explained that the increases resulted from the state law passed last year.

Baltimore County’s numbers do not include DNA evidence from hundreds of sexual assault cases dating back to 1977. A spokesperson told The Sun that the department hasn’t included the cold-case evidence in the surveys because it was collected before rape kit procedures were formalized at the Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

Baltimore County described almost all of its untested kits as “unable to categorize.” Five of its kits were awaiting testing. Forty-seven were classified as Jane Doe kits.

The Baltimore Police Department’s number of untested rape kits stayed about the same as 2016, at around 900. All of the city’s untested kits represent older cases dating back 30 years, or those they reviewed and decided not to test.

Steven O'Dell, chief of the Baltimore police forensics lab, said analysts currently test nearly every rape kit they receive every month, unless the case is unfounded or the sample isn’t viable.

The number of untested kits in the Howard and Frederick county police departments stayed about the same, at around 500 and 145, respectively between the two years. Maryland State Police reported a decrease in untested kits, from 57 to 46. Harford County and Calvert County also reported decreases from 107 to 66 and from 48 to 24, respectively.

crentz@baltsun.com

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