RICHMOND (WRIC)—Every two minutes, someone is sexually assaulted in the United States. DNA evidence collected from rape kits can lead to arrests and convictions, but hundreds of thousands of these kits remain sitting on shelves across the country—never tested.
Many of the untested rape kits lie on shelves in Central Virginia.
On March 25, 1993, Wanda Faye Mills was out jogging before work in Henrico County, when a man suddenly grabbed her from behind and dragged her into the woods.
"He swooped down over me, put me in a headlock and put a knife into my throat," Mills said. "He tied me up and raped me at that scene a couple of times."
Mills' traumatic ordeal lasted nearly seven hours in two different locations.
"[He] tied me to five trees—stretched out like an animal hide from my neck and every limb of my body, and raped me at that scene several more times," she said.
Mills' rapist took careful precautions, trying to wipe away any evidence.
"He started taking the knife and cleaning my fingernails, one by one," Mills said.
Still, DNA can be found in many other places. Mills' rapist left a trail of his on her underwear; it's what ultimately led to the arrest and conviction of Charles Riley.
"It was so spot on," Mills said. "You could not have ignored the DNA that was discovered in my case; DNA is the fingerprint of the 21st century."
It is often assumed that the evidence gathered from a rape kit is automatically tested for DNA, but 8News Anchor Kerri O'Brien discovered that's not always the case. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates there are 400,000 untested rape kits across the country sitting on shelves in evidence rooms.
The problem is that DNA testing is costly; each kit can cost about $1,500, and if prosecutors don't think they have a strong case, DNA testing may never occur.
An 8News investigation found that the Richmond Police Department has 75 rape kits sitting on shelves in its evidence room. RPD says some of the kits correspond to airtight cases, and that DNA is not needed. The department also says cost is not a factor.
In nearby Chesterfield County, 125 rape kits currently sit in storage. Lieutenant Rich McCullough of the Chesterfield County Police Department says there are various reasons those kits remain untested; 37 never went to the state lab, because the commonwealth attorney decided not to prosecute.
"They may have a suspect that has already confessed to the matter, so they don't need it," McCullough said. "There are other times where the victim may choose not to cooperate with prosecution on that matter … cost to us is not a factor."
What is perhaps most shocking is that despite the abundance of databases and spreadsheets that can easily keep record of important information, the Henrico County Police Division has no idea how many kits are sitting in its evidence room. 8News filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the numbers, but FOIA law doesn't require HCPD to create a document that doesn't exist. Henrico Police offered to do the research for 8News at a cost of nearly $900.
Scott Berkowitz is the president of Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), which has launched a campaign to bring attention to the huge backlog of untested rape kits in America.
"RAINN started surveying local law enforcement agencies and the majority told us they had no idea how kits have gone untested," Berkowitz said. "This is a very intrusive, very difficult process to go through. The least we can do after we put them through that is to test the evidence."
Robin Gahan showed 8News what a rape kit looks like. She coordinates the Regional Hospital Accompaniment Response Team (R-HART), a local group of volunteers who often sit with rape victims as they go through the kit.
"This is the box that is used," Gahan said. "This is the oral swab … head and hair collection is really important."
The kits—which are supposed to be tested for DNA at crime labs—require dozens of samples.
"They'll be swabbed, there will be photos taken," Gahan said. "I think it is very important labs are properly funded, so this backlog can officially be tested."
"It doesn't sound so bad when you call it a ‘rape kit,' but the reality is [victims] are often in the hospital for hours," Berkowitz said.
Berkowitz advises victims to be proactive in their cases to make sure their rape kits don't end up sitting in storage.
"The best thing a victim can do is keep in touch with that detective assigned to their case; be a nudge," he said.
Congress recently passed the Safer Act, which gives federal dollars to police departments to do an audit of their rape kits. The legislation is already helping in cities like Houston, where an audit found a backlog of more than 6,000 kits. The mayor ordered they all be tested; so far, 464 cases have yielded usable DNA.
Copyright 2013 by Young Broadcasting of Richmond
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