Crime

A count turned up more than 15,000 untested rape kits in NC. Here’s what might be next.

This 2001 file photo shows a sexual assault evidence collection kit.
This 2001 file photo shows a sexual assault evidence collection kit. News & Observer

A statewide count has found 15,160 untested rape kits, Attorney General Josh Stein announced Wednesday.

Stein is now recommending the General Assembly create a committee to determine how best to handle the sexual assault evidence collection kits and how to prevent such a backlog from occurring ever again. He wants lawmakers to approve a tracking system that would allow the victim, police officer or prosecutor to check the status of the kit to see if it has been tested or where it’s located.

The inventory was mandated as part of the 2017 state budget, passed by the General Assembly last year. The State Crime Lab contacted every law enforcement agency in the state to collect its data, and 92 percent responded. Prior to the inventory, the lab and the North Carolina Department of Justice led by Stein did not know how many untested kits there were.

“Testing these kits is important for promoting public safety,” Stein said. “It brings offenders to justice, it secures justice for victims, it closes cases and it prevents future crime.”

The inventory allows the lab and justice department to better understand why kits are left untested. Of those 15,000 kits:

▪ 3,820 were left untested because an investigation determined allegations to be unfounded.

▪ 2,741 were left untested because they were tied to cases that had been resolved in court.

▪ Nearly half – 7,545 – weren’t assigned a specific category. Stein said those were in a “catch-all” category. The categories were determined by the lab. Stein said it is likely agencies didn't see the kits fitting precisely into one of the categories or fit in more than one.

With the inventory complete, Stein now wants the General Assembly to create a committee including lawmakers, law enforcement officers, victim advocates, prosecutors and defense attorneys in order to find a way to reduce the backlog and prevent it from ever happening again.

“We can do that with a statewide tracking system,” Stein said. “Right now you can get a bar code so you know where your package is to guarantee delivery. We can have that same bar code on sexual assault kits to guarantee testing.”

All kits – unless the individual doesn’t want to press charges – will be shared with the State Crime Lab for potential testing.

“We have to send a strong message to victims, to criminals, to law enforcement, to advocates that we take the crime of sexual assault deadly seriously and we will do everything in our power to achieve justice for our victims,” Stein said.

Kimberly Robb, Pitt County district attorney and president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys, said testing the kits will lead to better outcomes for crime victims and help convict criminals. It’ll also have an impact on jurors.

“Juries expect scientific evidence,” she said. “It’s no longer enough to say we don’t have it ... They watch ‘CSI.’ They watch ‘NCIS.’”

Shelved investigations could also get new life. Robb said in Pitt County two cold cases have been solved because evidence was tested.

“That’s brought closure to two victims that never, ever thought they’d have closure,” she said.

Kits that are more than a year old will be “outsourced” to another lab, such as a private one, State Crime Lab Director John Byrd said. He said it can cost $700 to test a single kit. If the state were to test all the kits in the inventory, it would cost $10.6 million. The committee would be tasked with determining how a statewide tracking system would work and which kits should be prioritized for testing, as well as requesting funds to begin the testing.

Byrd said it can take six to eight months to fully test a kit, which is partly because of a two-step testing process. The hope is to have a “direct-to-DNA” test which would allow the lab to skip the first test, which determines if there is DNA to test. That would allow the crime lab to “process more cases more quickly,” Stein said.

The last time something like this inventory was done was in 2004, but at that time it was part of an effort to test all kits. Byrd said at that time the State Crime Lab was told it had cleared the shelves of the agencies of untested rape kits. Most of those kits were outsourced to other labs, he said.

Lauren Horsch: 919-836-2801, @LaurenHorsch

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