The Los Angeles Focus Groups

Sidebar to the article Solving Sexual Assaults: Finding Answers Through Research by Nancy Ritter

One of the goals of the Los Angeles sexual assault kit (SAK) study was to talk to boots-on-the-ground practitioners. Lead researcher Joe Peterson and his California State University team held four focus groups. Here are some of the main points made in the focus groups.

Law enforcement investigators

Although most of the detectives said that they had not yet found the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) valuable in linking sexual assault cases, they cited the "Grim Sleeper" serial murders as a recent example of how DNA testing could link a decades-old case to a single offender. The detectives said that as the CODIS database grows, it will become a more useful investigative tool.

The detectives expressed no doubt that DNA testing in sexual assault cases can be valuable; however, they questioned the need to test all SAKs. Some said they believed that the recently adopted policy of testing all kits was an overreaction, saying that it removed their discretion. Some questioned the wisdom of testing all SAKs when time and human resources are limited, especially in cases that are unlikely to result in prosecution. They also noted that the current test-all policy results in some testing delays and, ultimately, amounts to poor case management when caseloads are already heavy.

The detectives discussed the importance of communicating with lab analysts. They noted that the SAK testing request form allows them to direct the lab to specific pieces of evidence within the kit that, based on the history provided by the victim, could most likely yield a DNA profile. However, some detectives conceded that, although the lab request form does not preclude additional communication with analysts, they did not always speak with the analysts or only followed up on some cases.

The detectives also mentioned occasional difficulty understanding scientific terminology in lab reports and that better communication with the analyst would help them better comprehend the results. They noted the importance of maintaining awareness of scientific results and database inquiries and coordinating the sharing of information with victims.

Deputy district attorneys

The deputy district attorneys' belief mirrored the detectives' belief that DNA testing of an SAK has tremendous corroborative value in meeting legal standards of evidence and supporting the victim's credibility. However, some prosecutors felt that the length of time and cost of testing were prohibitive, and most said that testing is not strictly necessary if there is other corroborative evidence, such as a suspect's admission or a victim's injuries. Note, however, that this does not address the possible value of using CODIS to link the suspect to other past or future crimes.

They characterized the decision to test an SAK as "fact-driven," based on each case, adding that even though corroboration of victim statements and victim credibility are key criteria in deciding whether to charge a suspect, it is not mandatory to have DNA results in every case. The prosecutors agreed with the detectives that testing is probably not necessary if the suspect's identity is not in question or if "consent" is the issue when both individuals are underage; however, they strongly supported testing when it is key to establishing that a crime occurred or could possibly identify the suspect.

Some prosecutors said that policies mandating the testing of all SAKs were being driven by community perceptions, including that the public generally regards not testing evidence in an alleged sexual assault as violating the victim's rights. Such expectations, they said, have been compounded by TV shows that do not foster a full understanding of DNA testing. 'Juries expect it,' they said. 'They're going to wonder why when the kit isn't tested.' The prosecutors noted that, when an SAK is not tested, they must offer an explanation during voir dire or trial. It is vital, they added, to educate potential jurors on 'what science can and cannot do' because of expectations formed by CSI-type dramas.

Some of the prosecutors suggested that lab delays were sometimes caused by detectives requesting that the lab test everything. The researchers reported that this seemed contrary to the detectives' belief in their ability to direct the testing of evidence and seemed to suggest that the prosecutors did not believe that detectives always knew what particular evidence within an SAK would be most useful to a case.

The prosecutors said that lab analysts appreciated when they (the prosecutors) were knowledgeable about different types of DNA analysis and the associated costs, particularly in light of the presence or absence of other evidence in a case.

Finally, the prosecutors agreed with the detectives that labs should establish testing priorities to determine which kits should be tested and which evidence within an SAK should be tested.

Laboratory analysts

The lab analysts generally felt that their mission — to help solve cases — was being complicated by their parent agencies' new policy to test all SAKs. They regarded this as turning the lab's mission into uploading profiles into CODIS, regardless of whether the suspect's profile in the case was already in CODIS. Although they acknowledged the long-term benefits that could be gained from increasing the size of the CODIS database, they said that many of the hits resulting from testing all SAKs in the property rooms were for defendants who had already been convicted. They also said that, to their knowledge, none of the hits had led to a defendant being exonerated.

The analysts told the researchers that, if the detectives felt that testing all SAKs eliminated their discretion, they felt this even more strongly. "We don't get to triage; we get told what to do," one said. "We just do what comes in the door," said another. The lab analysts agreed with the detectives and prosecutors that some cases were being tested unnecessarily, noting that lab resources could be used more efficiently, specifically in stranger sexual assaults.

The analysts noted difficulty staying current with workload, saying that although new analysts were being hired, it was difficult to train them quickly to begin working on cases. They said that the response to the untested SAKs in L.A. seemed more like crisis management, adding that strategic planning was necessary to come up with long-term solutions.

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Date Created: June 15, 2012