Untested Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases

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Overview of the Issue

In 2010, NIJ — in partnership with the Office on Violence Against Women — brought together sexual assault nurse examiners, crime laboratory directors, cold case detectives, prosecutors and victim advocates from around the country to discuss the challenges surrounding untested sexual assault kits (SAKs).

NIJ also published a special report in response to the recent discoveries of thousands of untested SAKs in police evidence rooms nationwide. The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases (pdf, 29 pages) explores a wide range of issues, including how untested SAKs affects various stakeholders in the nation's criminal justice system: the police and crime laboratories; the courts; victim service agencies; policymakers at the federal, state and local levels; and the victims.

Action Research Project to Better Understand the Issue

In 2011, NIJ awarded competitive "action-research: grants to Wayne County (Detroit) and Houston to study the issue of untested sexual assault evidence. [1] The NIJ-funded teams in both jurisdictions include researchers; sexual assault forensic examiners; and representatives from the police departments, crime labs, prosecutor's offices, and community-based victim services organizations. One of the primary goals of these projects is to produce transportable lessons and strategies to help other jurisdictions that discover untested SAKs in their property rooms.

The Houston and Detroit projects were broken into two phases: a six-month planning phase and an implementation phase. The teams are currently in the implementation phase. Although it is too early to report any definite findings, some interesting preliminary data have emerged.

Preliminary Findings from Detroit

One of the Detroit team's goals in the first phase was to get an accurate count of how many SAKs in police custody were, in fact, untested. The team determined that 8,505 kits from alleged sexual assaults that had occurred as of November 1, 2009, were untested.

A second goal in phase 1 of the project was to examine why the problem of untested SAKs in police storage had developed. Based on an analysis of 20 years of archival public and internal records — and on in-depth interviews with key stakeholders from all multidisciplinary groups — the researchers on the Detroit team identified a number of reasons so many kits had not been sent to the crime lab for testing. In essence, they said, these can be regarded as "risk factors" that led to such a large number of untested SAKs:

  • Lack of a formal policy and protocol for testing.
  • Reduction in law enforcement staffing levels due to budget cuts, which significantly curtailed sexual assault investigations.
  • High turnover in law enforcement leadership and supervision of the sex crimes unit. Reduction in staffing levels in the crime lab due to budget cuts.
  • Use of inefficient DNA testing equipment/methodology in the crime lab due to budget cuts
  • Lack of good-quality sexual assault medical forensic exams.
  • Lack of community-based sexual assault advocacy services.
  • Lack of professional training for all multidisciplinary service providers.

Currently, the Detroit team is developing victim notification protocols and looking at a sample of approximately 2,000 previously untested SAKs. Four hundred of these kits were part of another project funded by the Office on Violence Against Women, and Detroit officials have identified other funding sources to test 1,600 kits: 200 will be tested using 2009 DNA Backlog Reduction Program funds from NIJ; 600 using 2011 DNA Backlog Reduction Program funds; and 800 using an NIJ grant to Marshall University in West Virginia. To date, 200 kits in the NIJ action-research project have been sent to the Michigan State Police, who will outsource the kits to a private laboratory for testing. The Detroit team is currently identifying SAKs that will be tested by Marshall University.

Preliminary Findings from Houston

The researchers on the Houston action-research team conducted nearly 150 interviews of law enforcement investigators, prosecutors, laboratory analysts, sexual assault nurse examiners, victim advocates and victims in the first phase of the project. Meanwhile, as part of a move to a new evidence-storage facility, the Houston Police Department was performing an internal audit of all SAKs in the climate-controlled evidence storage and in the freezer. The audit revealed that there were fewer untested SAKs than previously believed and that the lab had already screened more than half of the kits.

The NIJ action-research project is focusing on approximately 4,220 kits that were stored in the freezer. These kits will be screened to determine if they contain probative biological evidence that is suitable for DNA testing (NOTE: approximately 1,200 of the 4,220 kits had previously been screened with funds from the NIJ 2010 DNA Backlog Reduction Program). The next step is for the lab to try to determine a DNA profile from the kits that contain biological evidence. If a profile (other than the victim's) is successfully developed, it will be entered into CODIS to see if it can be linked to an offender or another crime. If there is a match, the police will begin the investigative process to determine if the match is probative and then obtain a reference sample from the suspect.

Final results from the Houston and Detroit projects are expected in 2014.

Study of Untested Sexual Assault Kits in Los Angeles City and County

NIJ provided grant support to researchers at California State University to examine the role of DNA testing of untested SAKS in property rooms of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department. The grant was modest — $100,000 — and, therefore, the study had a narrow focus, including time limitations.

The two primary goals in the L.A. study were to look at a random sample of the nearly 11,000 kits to:

  • Assess the efficacy of DNA testing.
  • Determine the criminal justice outcomes (arrest, charge, conviction) within the first six months after the kits were DNA tested.

The findings with respect to the study's second goal were surprising to many. In the first six months after a randomly selected sample of 371 SAKs were tested, no new arrests were made, new charges were filed in one case, and there were two convictions. In fact, it is probable that the DNA testing was not responsible for the single filing and the two convictions.

There are a number of important facts to keep in mind when trying to understand these results. First, the study looked at case adjudication in only the first six months after testing. The researchers did not examine whether there have been additional arrests, charges filed or convictions since that time. Second, the sample size was small, and the findings are from one site. Great caution should be used in trying to extend the findings to other locales. Indeed, the reasons for large numbers of untested SAKs in police property rooms may be very different in other jurisdictions.

Note

[1] Shortly after the solicitation was released, NIJ — with support from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government — hosted a webinar that addressed various aspects of the solicitation, including the "action research" model.

Date Created: June 18, 2012