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Allegheny

More than 1,200 rape kits sitting idle in Pennsylvania

Natasha Lindstrom
| Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, 10:48 p.m.
Forensic analyst Karen Gincoo checks a tray of evidence vials from rape kits in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. In Houston, authorities recently cleared a backlog of nearly 6,700 kits that included cases dating back to the 1980s. The project, which cost about $6 million, turned up 850 matches in a national DNA database. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
Forensic analyst Karen Gincoo checks a tray of evidence vials from rape kits in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston on Thursday, April 2, 2015. In Houston, authorities recently cleared a backlog of nearly 6,700 kits that included cases dating back to the 1980s. The project, which cost about $6 million, turned up 850 matches in a national DNA database. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

More than 1,200 untested rape kits are sitting idly on the shelves of police storage rooms and crime labs across Pennsylvania, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale lamented Tuesday.

"That's potentially 1,200 people seeking results from the hours-long, invasive exam they endured," DePasquale said. "It is beyond unconscionable that these kits continue to sit on a shelf, denying victims a chance for healing and closure."

DePasquale called on Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly to devote more state funding in 2018-19 toward reducing and ultimately eliminating backlogs of rape evidence — a problem particularly pervasive in small and rural or under-resourced municipalities statewide.

More than 200 rape kits have yet to be tested in Allegheny County, county officials said Tuesday.

"It is time that Pennsylvania provide the funding necessary to clear the backlog and finally provide sexual assault victims with a chance for justice," DePasquale said in a statement reacting to Wolf's annual budget address , which did not address the rape kit issue.

Wolf: Reducing backlog a priority

Wolf's office responded to DePasquale by saying that the governor has, indeed, prioritized expediting the processing of rape kits.

Last year, Wolf directed the state police to hire additional DNA testing technicians through the DNA Detection Fund, Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott said.

"In fact, we increased our investment by nearly $2.5 million, to $5.185 million," Abbott continued. "In 2018-19, Governor Wolf will continue to make these necessary investments through increasing our investment by over $1 million, to $6.22 million."

Pennsylvania's backlog of 1,214 rape kits — some dating to the 1990s — is down from this time last year, when closer to 1,800 rape kits were awaiting testing.

DePasquale acknowledged that some progress has been made but argued it doesn't go far enough.

"We know from other states that have tested their backlog of rape kits that testing can lead to identifying criminals," DePasquale said.

'End The Backlog' effort gains momentum

The so-called "End the Backlog" movement promoting the preservation and processing of rape case evidence has been gaining momentum nationwide in recent years.

In New York City, one out of five rape kits collected at hospitals gets destroyed before even reaching the New York Police Department, prompting local prosecutors and victims' advocates to seek regulatory changes, Muckrock reported in November.

In Detroit, the testing of 11,000 backlogged rape kits since 2009 has led to the identification of 817 serial rapists , defined as offenders who sexually assaulted more than one person, the Detroit Free Press reported in December.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy told the Detroit Free Press that in her experience, sexual predators who rape women typically get away with rape seven to 11 times before they are caught.

Backlogged kits in Ohio reviewed by researchers at Case Western Reserve University revealed that more than half of all sexual assaults reported had been committed by repeat or serial attackers, with a 25 percent chance that an offender would attempt rape two or more times.

Among recent state efforts to eliminate backlogs:

• California passed laws last year requiring law enforcement to use a statewide system to track kits and strengthening rape victims' right to know the status of their kits.

• Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced a far-reaching initiative related to reducing sexual crimes that includes allocating $14 million toward reducing its untested sexual assault kit backlog of about 15,000.

• Testing now underway through West Virginia's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative will reduce that state's backlog by about 1,400 rape kits, the Exponent Telegram reports.

Hunting for funding to pick up the pace

DePasquale flagged Pennsylvania's backlog issue in a 2016 audit that found that only a third of about 1,000 police agencies were complying with state law regarding rape kits. He concluded that most crime labs "simply do not have enough people, equipment or funding" to do so.

The law requires agencies to pick up kits within three days of being notified by a hospital and get them to a lab within 15 days.

Testing is supposed to be completed within six months.

In a letter to Wolf dated Friday, DePasquale credited Allegheny County's medical examiner for aggressively seeking federal and other forms of funding to reduce backlogs.

But DePasquale warned that it "will likely take years to effectively eliminate Pennsylvania's backlog at the current pace, especially if we continue to rely solely on federal grants to address the problem."

In Allegheny County, of 209 kits in the backlog, 49 have been sampled and are being processed for DNA testing, 51 have been sampled but not yet processed for DNA testing and 109 are considered "unworked," according to Bob Huston, lab director for the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.

"Absolutely, more money would allow us to send samples out for testing," Huston said.

In late 2015, Allegheny County was among 32 U.S. jurisdictions to receive a share of a $38 million grant from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

The grant helped the county temporarily get its backlog down to zero, by outsourcing the processing of 409 sexual assault kits for a little more than $600 per kit.

"This allows us to focus on other types of casework," Huston said.

Natasha Lindstrom is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8514, nlindstrom@tribweb.com or via Twitter @NewsNatasha.

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