When a woman or man is raped their body becomes the crime scene. Traces of blood, semen, or pubic hair left behind become evidence which when collected with a rape kit can reveal the assailant’s identity.
The process can be both intrusive and extensive, sometimes lasting up to 6 hours, but with the hope that justice will be served victims give their bodies over once more.
However, in Los Angeles city and county over 12,000 rape kits sit untested in storage facilities collecting dust.
The result: Rapists go free. Victims wait for justice.
Yesterday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) released a report that examines the backlog of rape kits in Los Angeles County, the largest known backlog in the United States. Their report reveals the systematic failure of the Los Angeles Police and Sheriff Department to ensure rapists are prosecuted and held accountable for their crimes.
Despite millions of dollars in federal funding, money that was granted in an attempt to address the problem of rape kit backlogs, HRW found 12,669 untested kits, nearly 500 of which belong to cases that have passed the 10-year statute of limitations for rape in California, making it impossible to prosecute the assailant even if their identity is revealed. Still, thousands more were destroyed untested.
“Women who are raped have a right to expect police to do all they can to thoroughly investigate their case, but in LA they often feel betrayed to learn that their rape kits are never even tested,” said Sarah Tofte, researcher with Human Rights Watch’s US program and author of the report. “And in some cases, failure to test means that a rapist who could have been arrested will remain free.”
Take Catherine for example, a mother in her forties that was raped by a stranger. According to the report she decided to undergo a rape kit only to be told it would take eight months for the crime lab to analyze it. During that time at least two other victims (one who was a child) were attacked and when the lab finally identified her assailant they discovered he had already served 18 years for a previous rape.
Timely testing of rape kits doesn’t only have the potential of identifying rapists and saving future victims. It can exonerate a suspect that is not guilty or help connect evidence from different crime scenes. The fact that such critical information sits unused is ludicrous, not to mention completely unjust.
In their report, HRW calls on Los Angeles Police and Sheriff Department to take immediate steps to begin to eliminate the rape kit backlogs. They also call on the Mayor of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to prioritize funding for the testing of rape kits in their 2009-2010 budgets.
Being raped isn’t something anyone would like to imagine, let alone live through. The attack if often so traumatic that reporting the crime is difficult; enduring the process of collecting evidence even more so but with the vision of their rapists behind bars victims bear the lengthy exam. The crime labs, however, fail miserably in LA and rapists walk free.
Photo by Alex Gorzen used under a Creative Commons license.