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Addressing the rape kit backlog, lack of offender DNA in databases

Offenders of various crimes are supposed to have their DNA collected and entered into databases. But that doesn't always happen.
Posted at 5:00 PM, Mar 15, 2023

In February, the Senate introduced a bill to reauthorize theDebbie Smith Act

It would continue to provide resources for local and state law enforcement to continue working through the backlog of untested rape kits. While some states have made significant progress testing these kits, there’s still a long way to go in collecting other DNA evidence critical to solving these crimes.

"The worst thing you can have is uncertainty, not knowing anything, and so people live with that uncertainty, they don’t know what happened," said Gail Gardner. 

She spent three decades not knowing what happened to the evidence collected for her rape kit or if her attacker was still out there. But Gardner’s story isn’t unique. Many sexual assault victims have spent years without justice due to backlogs in rape kits across the country. 

"Behind every rape kit is an individual, a survivor, who has gone through one of the most terrifying experiences of their life," said Ilse Knecht.

Knecht works with the Joyful Heart Foundation, the organization created by Law & Order: Special Victims Unit actress Mariska Hargitayafter she started hearing from assault survivors and learned the statistics of unsolved cases. 

"Every single one of these kits that are sitting on the shelf represents a potential very dangerous person on the streets, not just serial rapists but serial offenders, because we know these rapists commit all kinds of crimes," said Knecht. "If we really want to stop sexual violence, if we really want to catch perpetrators, we have to test the kits because we’re not going to catch the bad guys if we’re not testing the kits."

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The Joyful Heart Foundationhelps boost awareness and start conversations with state lawmakers on the issue of backlogged cases. Many states have improved their legislation to address rape kit testing, while others have not. But according to endthebacklog.org, only 16 states and Washington, D.C. have full reform. 

"Most of the work around the rape backlog to eliminate it is on the state level," said Knecht. 

Funding, staffing, and regulations are the driving forces behind the backlogs.

Another issue is that offenders of various crimes are supposed to have their DNA collected and entered into databases. But that doesn't always happen.

"All of these offenders who are walking the streets have never given their DNA and were supposed to, it's clear why we’re not getting as many matches as we thought we would," said Knecht.

To break it down, victims are putting themselves through what is often seen as additional trauma by going through an assault exam to collect DNA evidence. And then, if or when a victim's kit gets tested, if an attacker’s DNA doesn’t exist, there won’t be a match.

"If you test a rape kit and don’t get anything, and you put it in the DNA database and you don’t get a hit, then what? Well, now we have forensic genetic genealogy," said Knecht.

That technology is helping identify more suspects through their family members’ DNA, which may already exist in other databases.

"These are serial rapists who don't have a name and aren't in state databases, even at the national database for CODIS, so these are cases that would definitely benefit from doing FGG so maybe we can figure out who this one offender is who attacked five different women," said Laura Sudkamp, the director of the Kentucky State Police Forensic Lab.

Access to offender DNA is a game changer in solving sexual assault cases.

In Detroit, more than 11,000 untested kits were found, tested, and helped close more than 4,800 cases, leading to 239 convictions across 40 states and identifying 841 suspected serial offenders.

"If your DNA doesn’t match a crime scene, you don’t have anything to worry about," said Knecht.

From the backlogs and lack of offender DNA to the confusion over who exactly is responsible for rape kits and their testing, Knecht calls it a system breakdown.

"Less than like 1% of rapists ever spend a day in jail," she says, "We’re making the system be more accountable to you, and we want you to come back to trust the system."