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More suspects arrested from the rape kit backlog

More good news.

Houston’s effort to test a nearly three-decade backlog of sexual assault kits has resulted in new charges filed against 19 people, city officials said Monday, including 10 suspects identified and arrested for the first time.

One of the new suspects has been charged in connection with two assaults; another remains at large, Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. The other eight suspects, he said, already are in jail on other charges and now face sexual assault charges.

City Council in 2013 paid $4.4 million to two private labs to test DNA samples from 9,750 cases, including a backlog of 6,600 rape kits dating to 1987. The labs’ work is nearly done, and staff from HPD and the city’s forensics lab now are entering all eligible genetic information into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national law enforcement database.

So far, DNA from 1,031 of those cases has produced “hits,” meaning a suspect’s DNA already was in the database in connection with an earlier crime. In the vast majority of cases reviewed to date, officials said the suspects are known to police, having been arrested, convicted or detained at some point.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said the reviews have confirmed police arrested the right person in 58 sexual assault cases, but officials did not release details Monday about these cases or the 19 suspects hit with new charges. The Houston Chronicle reported in April the testing had identified at least one serial rapist already in jail on other charges.

The police officials gathered Monday at City Hall with Mayor Annise Parker and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to celebrate the renewal of a federal law that frees up millions of dollars to help cities test sexual assault kits. Parker and Cornyn also lauded the city task force – headed by three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 33 investigators – charged with clearing the backlog by updating criminal cases and making arrests as suspects are identified.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me also recommend that you read Emily DePrang’s in depth story in the Observer about how we got here, and how HPD is now leading the way nationally when it comes to dealing with untested rape kits. A few bits to whet your interest:

The trouble is, demand for DNA testing in many places continued to outstrip growth in crime-lab capacity. Backlogs, once cleared, would quickly form again. In 2009, a CBS News investigation found that rape kits in Alabama and Illinois took, on average, six months to process. In Missouri, the wait was almost a year.

These kits—the ones submitted by law enforcement to crime labs for analysis but not returned for more than 30 days—are what the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, considers “backlogged.”

But that’s not what happened in Texas.

Rather, most of the 19,000 kits reported (so far) never saw the inside of a lab because a sexual assault investigator made the decision not to have them tested. Victims who endure DNA collection may understandably assume it will be analyzed as part of the investigative process, but until recently, law enforcement officers could choose whether to test a kit. Often, they chose not to.

This was by no means limited to Texas. A 2011 survey by the National Institute of Justice found that, on average, nearly one in five recent unsolved rape cases nationally contain forensic evidence for which police never requested analysis.

The language used to talk about untested kits can obscure this deliberateness. If only for brevity, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates alike have embraced the term “backlog” to describe all untested kits, but this can wrongly suggest that testing was attempted or intended. The term “backlog” implies the problem was simply a lack of resources instead of a conscious decision by police not to test. Similarly, untested kits are usually described as having been “discovered,” often “discovered in a warehouse,” as if evidence for thousands of sexual assault cases had been misplaced. That’s misleading, too.

“I think on some level jurisdictions love to use the word ‘discovered,’” says Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for the national Joyful Heart Foundation, “because that makes them feel, in a way, a little bit better, and maybe look a little less culpable.” The Joyful Heart Foundation runs the website EndtheBacklog.org, a clearinghouse for information on the quest to test all kits. Tofte says, “I think when people hear, ‘Oh, they discovered a backlog,’ they imagine there was some abandoned meat locker somewhere in a field, and they opened it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! There are all these untested rape kits! We had no idea.’ But yes, jurisdictions know. They know because it’s their policy. If their policy is, ‘Don’t send everything to the lab,’ there shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s a backlog.”

[…]

In 2010—before [Sen. Wendy] Davis’ bill—HPD, on its own initiative, had already implemented a test-all-kits policy. Then it successfully applied for a competitive grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant, awarded just to Houston and Detroit, provided funds for the city not only to inventory its kits, but to study why so many went untested for so long, and to institute reforms. This wasn’t a secretive internal probe, either. Since early 2011, guided by the grant, HPD has hosted regular meetings of a diverse team of researchers, victims’ advocates, health care workers, forensic scientists, prosecutors and police brass, all dedicated to improving their response to sexual-assault survivors in Houston. When the grant ends in October, the group plans to continue its work independently.

Before sitting down together as part of the straightforwardly named Sexual Assault Kit Action-Research Task Force, many of these parties hadn’t previously communicated, let alone collaborated. Others, like victims’ rights advocates and some HPD investigators, were downright adversarial. As part of the group’s research, social scientists surveyed the attitudes of people in the justice system toward victims’ rights advocates and found that investigators in HPD’s Adult Sex Crimes Unit were particularly averse to outside meddling. One investigator told the group’s researchers, “…[Advocates] lead the woman to believe things that aren’t true.” Another complained, “[Advocates] have an agenda and take the woman’s side immediately.”

Undeterred, HPD moved forward with a plan to add a “justice advocate” to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit: a master’s-level social worker charged with improving investigators’ interactions with victims. The advocate, Emily Burton-Blank, was installed within earshot of investigators—a major breach of traditional police insularity—and investigators were required to involve her when contacting victims prone to dropping out of the process, such as people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness.

“Where we saw a large issue was the fact that a lot of people were dropping out of the system shortly after reporting [their rapes],” says HPD Assistant Chief Lentschke. “So we looked at that. How can we keep them in longer? Emily [the advocate] is a living, breathing idea. She’s done magnificent. And the investigators who were so anti-advocate … now they absolutely love her. That’s a huge turnaround.”

Sonia Corrales, chief program officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center, agrees. “Whenever we send a survivor [to HPD],” she says, “we know that when they talk to Emily, they’re getting really great service.”

The justice advocate position was originally slated to last less than a year and be funded only through the grant, but HPD officials quickly found the results so impressive that they made the position permanent and committed to hiring more advocates in the future.

It’s one of several steps HPD has taken to improve its treatment of sexual-assault survivors. New policies now require investigators to go into the field to investigate assaults rather than closing cases if victims fail to return phone calls or respond to a letter. The adult unit recently set aside a private room in which to take victims’ statements rather than interviewing them in the open, surrounded by other staff and ringing phones. And investigators have gotten new training, including education on the neurobiology of trauma so they can better recognize and respond to it.

But most important, HPD leadership has committed to ending the culture of victim blaming.

It’s a great story, so go read the whole thing. And did you notice the reference in there to Wendy Davis? A bill she authored in 2011 provided funding for rape kit testing, requiring every law enforcement agency to tally and report its untested sexual assault kits, and mandating that law enforcement agencies submit kits to a crime lab within 30 days. HPD as noted had gotten started before then, but the rest of the state wouldn’t be where it is now without that bill. Every one of these arrests is a reason to celebrate, as is the revelation – which I admit comes as a bit of a surprise – that no wrongly convicted offenders have been identified. With the winding down of this important project, the city’s new Forensic Science Center should be in good position going forward to ensure that there is never again this kind of backlog. Kudos to all for getting this done, and to Mayor Parker for making it a priority of her administration. Grits has more.

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