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Clearing the rape kit backlog is producing results

Very promising results.

Private forensic laboratories hired to clear the Houston Police Department’s untested DNA evidence – including a decades-old rape kit backlog – have identified potential offenders in a third of the cases where sufficient DNA samples were found, according to a HPD report.

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Since the HPD lab resumed operations about six years ago, the city has spent millions to outsource DNA evidence testing to reduce the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011. That money was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.

Last year’s multimillion-dollar clearance project to bulk outsource the cases came more than a year after HPD officials began an inventory of the sexual assault kits in their property room to determine how many had not been tested.

The two private labs have received 9,500 cases, and completed testing in nearly 6,200, according to the HPD report. Of those completed, sufficient evidence was found in 1,268, about a third of the 3,760 cases that have undergone HPD review to ensure the DNA evidence meets federal standards.

The remaining 2,492 cases reviewed did not find any results useful to investigators, the report states. Another 2,410 of the cases where testing was completed are still in HPD review.

See here and here for the background. If the same ratio of useful results holds true for the 2400 cases still being reviewed by HPD, then Houston will have had a higher success rate than some other cities when they finally cleared their backlogs. That doesn’t mean we should expect a thousand or more arrests – going by prior experience, we may see arrests in ten percent of these cases – but still, every single one will be good news. And of course, there are other possibilities.

Bob Wicoff, with the Harris County public defenders office, said the forensic testing could possibly result in exonerations of people wrongly convicted of a crime, or lead to the apprehension of guilty parties.

“There could be some exonerations out of this, but it’s too early to say,” said Wicoff, who represented two Harris County men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for rape. “That’s the whole point of doing the testing – its to identify unknown DNA.”

I’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one exoneration out of all this. The experience we’ve seen elsewhere strongly suggests that one or more innocent men will be identified as a result of this work. That too is very good news, and it will be doubly so if the real rapist gets caught as well.

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