Crime

NC may have more untested rape kits now than any state. Advocates want answers.

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

An inventory that found more than 15,000 untested rape kits across North Carolina isn’t just demanding the attention of state lawmakers and officials — it is also among the highest in the country.

It’s unclear exactly where North Carolina ranks among states in the number of untested kits because there’s no national standard for how often states should conduct an inventory. Some states haven’t done a review at all.

But according to End the Backlog, a program operated by the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation, North Carolina has the highest reported number of untested rape kits in its current inventory. The group tracks the backlog of rape kits in every state where the data is available.

"Remember that each one of those kits represents a survivor who has experienced a terrible crime committed against them and they have done everything that society asked them to do, which is to preserve evidence, go to a hospital, have it collected in a hospital in a procedure that is uncomfortable in the best of circumstances, and report to law enforcement, go through interviews asking them about the most intimate details of their life,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation. "They do that with the expectation that the evidence will be used against the offender."

It’s not the highest backlog in history, as some states have counted and then tested their inventories. Texas reported having 20,000 untested rape kits in 2011, but the majority of those have been tested since, according to End the Backlog’s website.

California and Florida currently are reported as having more than 13,000 untested kits.

In 2004, North Carolina inventoried 6,200 kits that piled up before the state crime lab had enough funding to test rape kits in cases without a known suspect, according to the attorney general's office. It cleared the backlog by testing a few hundred and deeming most of them unfit for DNA analysis.

But the office says because there’s no legislation requiring that local law enforcement submit kits for testing, there’s not much it could do to prevent the backlog from piling up again.

The North Carolina state crime lab itself — where the kits are sent from police departments — has an inventory of 164 untested rape kits, the oldest one dating to July 2017.

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Questions over categories

The report allowed law enforcement agencies to categorize four reasons why kits were not tested — "the victim wished to remain anonymous and did not report incident to authorities," "kit tied to a case that was resolved in court," "allegations determined to be unfounded" and "kits law enforcement agencies did not place in the above categories." Nearly half of the kits fell into the "other" category.

Organizations that support sexual assault victims are raising questions about how local law enforcement officials made decisions to place untested kits into the categories.

"I want to know, are there cases that law enforcement entities may have said, 'oh, well we don’t think this is a sexual assault,'" said Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

A quarter of the kits fell into the "unfounded" category. In both Raleigh and Durham, only a few hundred kits out of over a thousand fell in that bucket, but in some jurisdictions, they constituted all or nearly all of the untested kits. The unfounded category made up the following percentages of untested kits in departments with an inventory of more than 20:

  • 100 percent in the Currituck County Sheriff’s Office

  • 91 percent in the Waynesville Police Department

  • 86 percent in the Craven County Sheriff’s Office

  • 81 percent in the Wilkes County Sheriff’s Office

  • 79 percent in the Macon County Sheriff’s Office

Knecht said she’s concerned that those cases that fall in the "unfounded" category could be instances in which law enforcement didn’t believe a victim. That can happen because of bias, she said, but also a lack of understanding and training. Police might doubt a victim whose story changes, but Knecht said that's a common effect of trauma.

"When you go through trauma you have all these hormones that flow through your body — the memories, they get out of order," she said. "You can’t really recall the story in a linear fashion."

But Brandon Zuidema, president of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said the category boils down to what can be proven in court.

"I don't think it's ever about not believing the victim," said Zuidema, who's also chief of police in Garner. “We may in our heart believe that something did occur but unfortunately sexual assault crimes are often very difficult to prove. Sometimes it is a case of one person's story against another person's story."

Addressing the backlog

Attorney General Josh Stein says he wants all of the more than 15,000 kits tested, regardless of category.

Stein has called for tracking the kits. "Right now you can get a bar code so you know where your package is to guarantee delivery," he said at a news conference Wednesday. "We can have that same bar code on sexual assault kits to guarantee testing."

He's requesting the General Assembly create a committee to determine how a statewide tracking system would work and which kits should be prioritized for testing, as well as requesting money to begin the testing. The report estimates it will cost $10.6 million to test all 15,160 kits.

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End the Backlog tracks reforms implemented to prevent untested rape kits from piling up. The organization recommends states enact legislation to promote:

  • audits and inventories.

  • testing of all untested and newly collected rape kits.

  • victims' right to be informed.

  • tracking.

  • funding.

North Carolina has mandated an inventory but not the other recommendations. More than a dozen states have implemented reforms beyond an inventory.

Regardless, Knecht said that testing the kits is a crucial first step for the state, and one that encourages survivors to come forward.

"They feel they can trust the system, they can trust the police department," Knecht said. "They have faith that they’re going to do something about their case."

Danielle Chemtob: @daniellechemtob

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