Helena Lazaro was brutally raped in Los Angeles in 1996. Her rapist threatened to hunt her down if she reported the attack. Ms. Lazaro bravely went to the police and then had a rape kit done to gather evidence from the assault.
Ms. Lazaro then waited, and waited, for the detectives call to get the results of her rape kit. A call they took almost a decade to make.
Despite her follow-up attempts to find out about the status of her case, her rape kit, which contained vital information to identify and prosecute her attacker, sat on a dusty shelf, completely ignored for over seven years.
Ms. Lazaro is not alone. Currently, there is an estimated backlog of up to 400,000 untested rape kits in the U.S. A rape kit (also called a sexual assault kit) is done by a nurse or doctor to collect and preserve crucial evidence (hair, semen, fibers, blood) after a reported attack.
This backlog in testing sexual assault kits has been a significant problem for many years. Victims who have courageously reported their attack and had a kit done are then forced to wait, sometimes for decades, for their kit to be tested.
The astonishing low prosecution rate for sexual crimes is often blamed on low reporting rates. “How can we arrest and prosecute if we don’t know about the attack” law enforcement frequently claims. While there are many sexual assaults that go unreported, especially given that victims are often mistreated when they come forward, this is not the primary reason why rapists walk free—it is a convenient narrative, one that puts the burden back on the victim, and hides the fact that even when victims do report their cases are still not prosecuted–often because their rape kit that contains valuable evidence was never even tested.
Backlogged, untested rape kits are an all too common miscarriage of justice—and end up shielding both first time and serial sexual offenders.
While this problem is widespread across many states, one particularly glaring example of this is in Detroit. When thousands of backlogged rape kits were finally tested, they held the DNA to 833 serial rapists. Assailants who roamed free for years, continuing to rape, while the evidence to convict them was collecting dust in a warehouse.
End the Backlog, an organization fighting for all sexual assault kits to be tested (and they also list current backlogs for each state), reports that this problem spans many states and when backlogged kits in Memphis, Cleveland and Michigan were finally tested, approximately 1,300 serial offenders in at least 40 states were found.
In addition to this appalling backlog, in precincts throughout the country, untested kits are being destroyed, many times before the statute of limitations has even run out—making it virtually impossible to investigate or prosecute the case.
How can this be happening? Cost and negligent oversight are two factors—many counties claim lack of funding/staff to process kits, but the problem is also intrinsically connected to a pervasive culture in all levels of law enforcement that do not take sexual assault cases seriously.
“There’s no excuse for this to happen,” said former prosecutor and congressman Scott Holcomb (D-GA). “The system has failed and continues to fail. I hate to say it but the basic reason [this happened] is because women aren’t believed when they report these crimes.”
A 2018 in-depth CNN investigation revealed an atrocious lack of follow-through and negligence by sex crimes detectives.
Cases like a North Carolina woman who reported being gang raped and had a rape kit done, but detectives never spoke to the men she identified as her attackers and just a month later ordered her rape kit to be destroyed—even though the state has no statute of limitations on this crime.
Her case was not the exception to the norm—the practice of throwing away kits runs rampant. In a sample of 14 states, 25 agencies were found to have discarded assault kits in cases that could have still been prosecuted.
Intentionally underreporting/misclassifying rape cases and demeaning victims was also uncovered in many states.
In New Orleans, which is just one of the police departments whose investigative practices were highly questionable, the city’s inspector general found that rape cases were routinely not investigated and underreported and that in 86% of the 1,290 sexual assault (and child abuse) cases, victims were dismissed or discounted and detectives never even wrote up an investigative report. In Missouri, detectives were found to have regularly discarded rape kits, 75% of them were never even tested and they forced victims to talk to detectives within ten days —or their case was closed.
This staggering problem must be addressed on all fronts— the backlog, funding, as well as the profound negligence law enforcement has shown in investigating sexual crimes.
Currently, the House of Representatives introduced a resolution (H. Res 81) to urge state legislatures to pass sexual assault kit reform legislation by 2021 which would not only address assault kit backlogs, but also require new and older untested kits to be processed within a mandated time frame. Some states have recently made some legislative progress, but it is far from enough.
Despite all of these alarming concerns, advocates still recommend victims receive counseling and support, report the crime and have an assault kit done because these kits are still the most effective way to capture an attacker.
The Joyful Heart Association, created by actress and producer of the HBO documentary I Am Evidence, Mariska Hargitay (who also founded the End the Backlog initiative), reports, “The DNA evidence contained in rape kits can be an incredibly powerful tool to solve and prevent crime. It can identify an unknown assailant and confirm the presence of a known suspect; affirm the survivor’s account of the attack and discredit the suspect; connect the suspect to other crime scenes and identify serial offenders; and it can exonerate the wrongly convicted.”
What can you do to help to fight this? Call your state representatives and urge them to pass legislation addressing your states backlog and implement strict oversight measures. Support (and donate) to organizations like End The Backlog, ENOUGH SAID and Every Kit Counts that are fighting to eradicate this problem— and vote for candidates, especially District Attorney’s, that support reform.
It is unconscionable that rapists walk free because a kit containing the evidence to potentially convict them is sitting untested, is discarded or because law enforcement unjustly closed a case—one that was never properly investigated in the first place.
Assault cases must be taken just as seriously as any other violent crime. Would law enforcement refuse to test blood at a homicide crime scene? Would they throw out a murder weapon that may have fingerprints on it? Of course not.
There is no excuse for treating sexual violence as a crime less worthy of a thorough and rigorous investigation.