Many sexual assault survivors await justice with backlog of rape kits

Many sexual assault survivors are waiting for justice across the country due to a system that one woman calls inefficient.

The woman, who asked to be identified by the name Anna, recalled the night in March 2016 when she was violated by a man she knew. She said the man joined her group of friends for a night out and was a platonic friend.

“Unfortunately, the way the events unfolded it led to me being raped and sodomized that night,” she said.

Anna and her alleged attacker did not have a history of dating.

“I think the only reason I’m alive is because I did not fight during my attack,” she said. “I was alone. No one knew this person had taken me home.”

Less than 24 hours after the sexual assault, Anna called 911. She said she was rushed to SF General Hospital to undergo a forensics exam. The samples collected are known as a rape kit.

“That was a surreal experience," she recalled. "They check for things like bruises or defense wounds.”

Anna waited for answers from the San Francisco Police Department. She said she called the officer in charge of her case every couple of week for updates.

“I identified my attacker the day it occurred,” she said. “I went through the rape kit exam. Why is he not arrested? Why is he walking the street? Why is he going to work?”

Anna told the officer she was concerned her alleged attacker was a flight risk and would leave the country to care for his dying parents in India.

“Because he submitted his DNA willingly the police for some reason thought that meant he was going to continue to cooperate,” she said.

Anna’s rape kit wouldn’t be processed by a crime lab for several months. In the meantime, Anna tried to apply for a protective order, but said it was denied by a judge because she could not prove her alleged attacker had a history of violence. She is not able to provide her case file to the judge because it is an open and active investigation.

A spokesman for the San Francisco police department said officers did not immediately arrest Anna’s alleged attacker because they did not have enough evidence for a prosecutable case against him at the time. The results from the crime lab were still pending.

“Because of the backlog, there was a degree of uncertainty of how long it would it would take to process my kit,” she said.

Anna is referring to the backlog of rape kits at the crime lab that SFPD uses to process their kits. It is located on the East Coast. It is far from the only crime lab with a backlog. The U.S. Department of Justice reports tens of thousands of rape kits are sitting on shelves in evidence rooms and crime labs across the country.

In the past, San Francisco County, Alameda County, and Contra Costa County have all reported a backlog of rape kits at police agencies waiting to be processed.

SFPD said they no longer have a backlog in their department thanks to changes implemented in 2013. It came after one woman sued San Francisco on allegations the department did not process her rape kit for two years. In April 2016, the San Francisco Police Commission passed a resolution that requires semi-annual and annual reporting of data related to sexual assault kits.

“That doesn’t mean there aren’t cases in limbo,” Anna said.

An SFPD spokesman said a rape kit is immediately submitted to a crime lab once it is collected from a hospital. It is then assigned for analysis within 14 days. The crime lab still has 120 more days to process that evidence. That department protocol is in line with recommended state deadlines, according to state penal code section 680 known as the Sexual Assault Victims’ DNA Bill of Rights.

“I don’t think this is enough,” she said. “120 days? Really? If you have evidence, it’s your responsibility to utilize that. By not doing that it’s a slap in the face to the victim.”

Officer Carlos Manfredi explained the department sends rape kit samples out-of-state to be processed because it is a more thorough test. He said many samples in the kit are processed at that crime lab, compared to other labs that may only test two samples.

Manfredi said testing more samples allows them to get a more accurate and exact result and reducing the possibility of a false negative result. Although the process may take a little longer for the results to return, it leads to a better prosecution in court and the results are hard to disprove.

Across the bay, Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley spoke with KTVU about importance of streamlining the testing process.

O’Malley has successful advocated from millions of dollars in federal funding over the past three years to help police agencies pay for the cost of testing kits. Her office is nearly done eliminating the 2,000 kit backlog they discovered in 2011.

O’Malley also received a grant from the New York City District Attorney’s Office in 2015 to process kits where the statute of limitations had expired. She said it is still important to enter results into a national DNA database known as CODIS.

“We’re linking crimes together, we’re identifying serial perpetrators,” she said. “That’s one reason why it’s important to not leave any kits untested.”

While most Bay Area agencies send their rape kits out of state to be processed, a robot at the Oakland Police Department’s crime lab has changed the way kits are tested.

Criminalist III DNA Technical Leader Jennifer Mihalovich said they decided in 2010 that they no longer wanted a backlog. They developed a system using a robot to expedite the process.

“On average we do get a profile into CODIS within 10 business days,” Mihalovich said. “We’ve done that about 90 percent of the time.”

Mihalovich said the robot can process samples from a rape kit six times faster than a human. About half of the time, there is a DNA profile that is eligible to be placed into CODIS.

“We’ve been asked by many agencies across the United States for our protocol so that they can implement it within their laboratory,” she added.

Anna received the results of her rape kit in 102 days, within the 120 day state recommended time frame. A warrant was then immediately issued for her alleged attacker’s arrest, but she said it was too late.

A week later Anna received an email from the officer stating her alleged attacker is believed to have fled the country. She said the officer also asked her if she knew where her alleged attacker was.

“It’s unbelievable,” Anna said. “It made me so angry because here I am the victim. This is practically turning into a job itself.”

SFPD confirmed that the alleged suspect may have fled the country. The department is working to extradite him, but would not release his identity because he has not been booked or cited.

Anna said she is resilient in her work to get justice.

“Luckily I was told that because he fled the country, the statute of limitations does not apply,” she said. “That is the only silver lining. And that’s what makes my case worth still pursuing.”

In September 2016, California Governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law that will end the 10-year statute of limitations on prosecuting rape cases. It will only apply to sexual assaults committed after Jan. 1, 2017 when the law takes effect. It is not retroactive.
 

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