Politics & Government

State auditor: A 'stomach-turning' 3,090 sexual assault kits remain untested in Kentucky

Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen addressed media as his office released his statewide count of 3,091 untested rape kits Frankfort, Ky., on Sept. 21, 2015. Edelen recommends Kentuckyâ™s 2016 General Assembly funding of the state crime lab to address current backlogs and prevent future ones. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff
Kentucky State Auditor Adam Edelen addressed media as his office released his statewide count of 3,091 untested rape kits Frankfort, Ky., on Sept. 21, 2015. Edelen recommends Kentuckyâ™s 2016 General Assembly funding of the state crime lab to address current backlogs and prevent future ones. Photo by Pablo Alcala | Staff Lexington Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT — More than 3,000 medical evidence kits for people in Kentucky who have been examined for possible sexual assault have not been tested, state Auditor Adam Edelen said Monday.

Edelen, at a news conference in his Frankfort office, called the statewide backlog of 3,090 untested sexual assault kits "stomach-turning."

"When a victim has the courage to undergo an invasive and traumatizing exam after an assault, he or she deserves to have the evidence in that sexual assault kit analyzed," Edelen said. "One of government's fundamental responsibilities is to bring these rapists to justice."

The Democratic auditor proposed that the state legislature spend more money and adopt new policies to fix the broken system.

The kits contain biological evidence collected from assault victims during investigations and might contain DNA from assailants who can be identified by comparisons with a national DNA data base.

Edelen, who launched the survey of untested kits in April at the direction of a new law, held 14 public programs around the state to get input on the untested kits. He also solicited information from various police, legal and health professionals.

His office found that limited resources, state budget cuts, and recruitment and retention problems at the state's forensic laboratories are significant factors contributing to long turnaround times. The average turnaround time to analyze sexual assault evidence submitted in 2014 was eight months, and data indicate the turnaround time is increasing, Edelen said.

Increased funding for the Kentucky State Police crime lab should be a priority for the legislature, he said.

"Investment is a precondition for improving the system," Edelen said. "In the digital age, no elected official can claim the mantle of 'tough on crime' without adequately funding the state crime lab."

Kentucky State Police recently received a $1.9 million grant from the Manhattan (New York City) District Attorney's Office to deal with the backlog, but Edelen said the legislature and state police would have to determine exactly how much money is needed to correct the problem in the long term. He said $3 million to $5 million could be needed upfront and then about $2 million a year after that.

Edelen also said there are not enough specialized nurses, called sexual assault nurse examiners, in Kentucky to perform the tests. Kentucky has 249 certified sexual assault nurses, but advocates say many of them are not currently practicing.

"I'm deeply concerned about the untested kits, but I'm equally worried about the evidence that is never collected because victims are not treated with compassion and respect in their darkest hours," Edelen said.

Another of his recommendations is that law enforcement be required to submit nearly all sexual assault kits for analysis within 10 days of booking them into evidence and that the state police crime lab be required to test those kits within 90 days of receipt.

He also recommends more training for law enforcement, and that law enforcement be required to adopt policies for dealing with sexual assaults.

The auditor's office surveyed 391 law enforcement agencies in Kentucky.

Auditors identified 1,859 untested sexual assault kits in the possession of 87 police departments and sheriffs' offices and 1,231 untested kits at the state police forensic laboratory.

It has been estimated there might be 400,000 untested sexual assault kits nationwide.

In Kentucky, police departments in Louisville, Lexington and Newport had the most untested kits.

Louisville, the state's largest city, had a backlog of 1,320 kits. Lexington had 315.

Lt. Matt Brotherton, head of the Lexington police special victims section, said the city's backlog was the result of insufficient funding for the state police crime lab.

"If the state crime lab had been properly funded, there would be no backlog of rape kits in this state," he said.

Every kit is now sent to the state police crime lab, he said.

Edelen said Lexington's police department has "an on-staff sexual assault nurse examiner, a vigilant special victims unit and a model evidence logging, tracking and storing process."'

He said he found a number of problems statewide that have led to fewer kits being submitted to the state crime lab and tested in a timely manner.

Approximately 41 percent of law enforcement agencies reported they don't submit all kits for analysis, and most agencies reported they lack clear policies for handling sexual assault kits, he said.

Some of the reasons police reported for not submitting kits indicate a lack of understanding of the multiple purposes of analyzing kits, Edelen said.

Eleven percent of law enforcement, for example, indicated they don't submit a kit if they don't have a suspect. This ignores the fact that the national DNA database, known as CODIS, could help them identify one, Edelen said.

Auditors found that long turnaround times to analyze sexual assault evidence, as well as confusing communications from the state lab, also contribute to fewer kits being submitted and tested.

In one case, a prosecutor told Edelen that three men who drugged and raped a woman remained in the community for eight months while the victim's kit awaited analysis.

"Many of these rapists are walking the streets while the evidence needed to put them behind bars collects dust," Edelen said. "When a neighboring state can turn around this same evidence in less than 20 days, we can and must do better."

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports that 20 percent of Kentucky women have been raped and 48 percent have experienced sexual violence. But 98 percent of rapists nationally will never serve a day in prison, Edelen said.

He said there is near-unanimous sentiment among police that all kits should be tested, and many agencies are updating their policies to improve handling of sexual assault investigations.

Clark County Sheriff Berl Perdue Jr., president of the Kentucky Fraternal Order of Police. said law enforcement was committed to doing its part to fix the system and bring more perpetrators to justice.

The Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs, which is the umbrella organization for the state's 14 regional rape crisis centers, applauded the report's observations.

"When nearly half of Kentucky women experience sexual violence, yet 98 percent of rapists walk free, we need to take a hard look at our justice system and make changes," executive director Eileen Recktenwald said.

Edelen said he thought most reports of sexual assault are from truthful victims, because the FBI says only about 2 percent of people who report rape make false claims.

He also noted that it takes two to six hours for a rape victim to go through the test. "This is something most do because they want their perpetrators stopped," he said.

State Sen. Denise Harper Angel, D-Louisville, sponsored the legislation that brought about the survey of untested sexual assault kits.

She said she looked forward to working with her "colleagues in both parties next year" to make proposed reforms a reality.

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