Police let rape evidence gather dust

An estimated 3,000 cases sit in storage as state pushes to use new DNA-testing tools

By T.C. Brown
Plain Dealer Bureau

Many rape victims cling to a hope that the science of DNA will someday identify their attackers. But it only works if evidence is analyzed, and that step has been neglected in thousands of rape cases in Ohio and hundreds of thousands of cases across the nation.
State officials estimate that more than 3,000 kits containing rape evidence have been gathering dust in Ohio police department evidence rooms, in some cases for decades.

Victims are often unaware that police have set aside, or worse, tossed out, evidence of an attack that nurses collected from the victims' bodies.

But the evidence - bodily fluids and hairs, for instance - often remained unexamined unless police had a suspect, law-enforcement authorities say. Only then could investigators take samples of similar evidence from the suspect and test it for comparison to evidence taken from the victim.

Forensic science, however, has advanced rapidly in the last couple of years, outpacing the dated investigative techniques of overburdened police forces.

Now, police no longer need to wait to find a suspect. The technical advances give investigators the ability to extract, analyze and compare a person's genetic makeup, or DNA, analyze it immediately and use computers to compare it to cataloged DNA samples from thousands of potential suspects.

Yet police have been slow in changing investigative policies, and still leave rape kits unanalyzed if they don't have a suspect. In Cleveland, 650 kits are stored untested, and Akron and Toledo have 350 and 800, respectively, according to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation.

The situation is common across the country, with estimates of more than 180,000 rape kits languishing in police property rooms, said Kellie Greene, an Orlando, Fla., rape victim whose own DNA evidence was not analyzed for three years.

"Usually if there is a rape with no suspect and the victim does  not stay active, they become cold cases and are pretty much forgotten about," said Greene, who gives awareness seminars through her group, Speaking Out About Rape. "I think most of the general public is under the impression that everything gets processed."

About 4,500 rapes are reported in Ohio each year, according to BCI. Nationally, a woman is raped or sexually assaulted every two minutes and one in six women is attacked in her lifetime, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network and the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Any backlog means that rapists may be walking free," said Jamie Zuieback, of the rape and abuse national network.

An Ohio rape victim recently shared the agony of worrying about the languishing evidence and a rapist walking the street. The Bowling Green woman told her story to the Ohio Sexual Assault Task Force.

"It is like a deadly poison. The longer you wait, the  harder it is to treat, and eventually it can lead to a spiraling downfall of all that you have known as life," the victim said. "How can we protect other women from having this happen to them when these guys who have committed these crimes do not have this hanging over their heads?"

Financial incentive

For the past 15 months, since BCI initiated its electronic DNA database, police and crime labs have been urged to submit their rape kits for comparison to the 34,000 DNA profiles gathered in Ohio from convicted felons and crime scenes. BCI and the federal government pay for the testing.

The FBI has amassed another 900,000 DNA profiles from 49 states and 14 foreign countries.

Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery tomorrow is expected to announce a financial-incentive plan, paid for in part by a $2.2 million federal grant, to kick-start the flow of stored rape kits to BCI.

A pilot program will be started with the Cleveland Police Department, then opened to all departments in the state. About $200,000 of the grant money will be used to give $100 to Ohio police departments for every rape kit they submit, said Bret Crow, a Montgomery spokesman.

Before BCI compiled its database of DNA profiles known as CODIS - Combined DNA Index System - police had no way to conduct a comparison test in rape cases with unknown suspects, said BCI Superintendent Ted Almay. Now they do, but police have been slow to react.

Some departments, forced by heavy caseloads to prioritize cases, still have policies dictating that kits be analyzed only when a suspect is known, he said. Others simply don't recognize the new databases' value - and the chance that a bit of extra work could yield an arrest.

"We're trying to change the mind-set and the culture of law enforcement," Almay said.