N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announced a $10 million plan Tuesday to eliminate the backlog of more than 10,000 untested rape kits statewide, hoping to close decades of unsolved sexual assault cases.
Joined by a bipartisan group from the N.C. House, Stein said he will seek legislation that ensures both old and new kits get tested, requiring that law enforcement agencies submit them to the state crime lab within 45 days.
“Each one of these kits represents a personal tragedy,” Stein said at a Raleigh press conference, “and each of these victims deserves justice.”
The proposed Survivors Act comes as the state has grappled with news that 15,160 kits remained on law enforcement shelves, never undergoing analysis. The kits contain DNA and other evidence collected during medical procedures after sexual attacks.
The 2017 inventory taken by the state crime lab showed North Carolina had one of the highest backlogs nationwide. Of the untested kits, more than 6,000 came from cases that had either been resolved in court or showed no evidence of assault. But more than 7,000 fit neither of those categories.
Speaking at the press conference, Fayetteville police Lt. John Somerindyke said that in the past, police departments lacked accountability and sometimes set evidence aside when victims’ stories would change. Since then, he said, technology has improved significantly — enough that a “stranger rape” case from 1987 got solved this week.
Somerindyke added he has likely looked at every reported case in his city and concluded that “every rapist is a serial rapist,” meaning that an untested kit gives an attacker free rein.
“The survivors deserve justice and the public deserve to be protected,” said Rep. Jamie Boles, a Moore County Republican and co-sponsor of the Survivor Act.
The bill asks for $6 million to process the old kits, requiring law enforcement agencies to set up review teams to survey their inventories and find out which have the most investigative value and potential for a CODIS hit, or match with DNA already in a federal database.
Another $4 million is available in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Governor’s Crime Commission.
New forensic scientists would be hired at the state crime lab to handle incoming kits, and many other kits would be outsourced to private labs.
“It’s not evidence in a box,” said Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault. “It’s part of who (these victims) are.”
The bill also addresses how future kits are managed. Law enforcement would be notified within 24 hours each time a kit is collected.
Police would then have 45 days to investigate before sending the kit to the lab as required. After that, any time law enforcement receives a CODIS hit, it must notify the crime lab within 15 days of an arrest or conviction.
In December, the Robeson County Sheriff’s Office announced it had failed to act on a CODIS hit linking Michael Ray McLellan to a 2016 rape, a crime committed one year before McLellan was charged with the rape and murder of 13-year-old Hania Aguilar in Lumberton.