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Justice for rape victims: it's just a kit away

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They're called "rape kits," samples of biological evidence collected in hospitals from victims of sexual assault. After collection, the kits are turned over to law enforcement agencies for DNA analysis, in hopes of identifying the perpetrator.

            But in recent years, a lack of funds to process the kits has created a massive backlog nationwide. Former New York City Police Commissioner Howard Safir, a vocal advocate for testing the kits, estimates there are between 300,000 to 500,000 evidence samples sitting in storage, gathering dust, in police departments across the country. At one point, New York City's backlog reached 16,000 --- it's since shrunk to about 4,000.

            Assemblywoman Susan John, another advocate, estimates there are still approximately 12,000 untested kits in the state. Harvey Van Hoven, director of the Monroe County Crime Lab, doesn't know how many untested kits are being stored at his facility and the 52 different police agencies the lab serves in the region, but says there are "not thousands."

            "Some agencies we service have kits that haven't been submitted," Van Hoven says. He says a survey of the backlog is forthcoming.

Thanks to a $5.3 million federal grant awarded to New York State this fall, funding to test some of the backlogged kits is also forthcoming.

            The grant is part of a $125 million fund established in 2000 by the DNA Analysis Back Log Elimination Act, a law co-authored by Democratic Rep. Anthony Weiner of New York City.

            Of New York's $5.3 million, the Monroe County Crime Lab will receive $1.2 million. The money will allow the lab to hire more staff and purchase more equipment.

            John Hicks, director of the state's Office of Forensic Services, says Monroe County will be able to send DNA evidence from 500 cases to the state crime lab for testing as a result of the funding.

            Analyzing the DNA evidence in rape kits costs between $500 and $1,000, says local activist Thera Clark. For the cost of one B-1 Bomber, all the rape kits in the county could be tested, she says.

            Frustrated by a lack of progress on the issue, Clark made funding for rape-kit testing the central issue of her attempt to challenge Assemblywoman John on the Green Party line this year. (Clark failed to collect enough signatures to get on the ballot.) She's continued to advocate for the cause.

            "If you tell [rape victims] that we don't have enough funding, that your rapist is still walking down the same street as you, that's a form of terrorism," Clark says.

The federal grant is specifically intended to help solve cases in which DNA evidence exists, but no suspect has yet been identified. If there is a suspect, court deadlines usually put testing of a rape kit on the fast track.

            As part of the grant process, Hicks says the state identified 3,146 no-suspect cases, including both rapes and homicides (about 60 percent of the cases involved rape kits).

            Beginning in 1996, individuals convicted of homicide and certain sex-related crimes in New York were required to have their DNA collected and entered into a statewide data bank. In 1999, Governor Pataki expanded that requirement to include a wider range of violent felony offenses --- such as assault, armed robbery, and burglary.

            The state now has over 100,000 DNA profiles culled from convicts in its data bank, Hicks says. Another 6,408 evidence samples have been collected in what's called "the forensic unknown file" --- DNA samples, presumed to be those of a perpetrator, recovered from a crime scene.

            Checking the 3,146 no-suspect samples against the DNA profiles in the state data bank has resulted in 605 "hits" so far, Hicks says. About 65 percent of those DNA matches came from rape kits.

            A study of the first 100 matches found that, on average, convicts linked to the crimes had a dozen or more prior convictions, but not necessarily for crimes that require a DNA sample be taken.

            "The point of that [study] was that the criminals don't necessarily specialize," Hicks says. "A rapist is not just always a rapist." For example, "a burglar may become a rapist," Hicks says, in the process of committing that lesser crime.

            That fact provides "probably the strongest argument to consider expanding the data bank," Hicks says.

            Pataki has proposed requiring all convicted felons to provide DNA samples. Under current law, individuals convicted of second-degree sex abuse, attempted rape, or rape in the second and third degrees are not required to submit a DNA sample.

            The Assembly has been reluctant to agree to Pataki's proposed expansion of DNA sampling, John says, given the number of kits still untested.

            "There's not much sense in testing more prisoners without having a way of linking up the tests that are being done on the victims," says Assemblyman David Koon, who adds that "taking a sample of DNA should be as simple a thing as taking fingerprints."

            The grant "will make a big difference" in reducing the backlog, Hicks says. Improvements to state crime labs funded by the grant "will position the labs to turn out work much more quickly than they now can and stay abreast of backlog cases."

            Clark, for one, will be watching closely. "I'm going to keep beating this until it's a dead horse."

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