RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- On Wednesday, Attorney General Mark Herring announced that Virginia’s backlog of untested rape kits has been eliminated and ‘is never coming back.’ Herring believes Virginia is the seventh state to accomplish this feet.
An 8News investigation by Kerri O’Brien first exposed the backlog in Central Virginia in 2013. When AG Herring took office in 2014, he said nearly 3,000 untested kits were collecting dust on shelves across the commonwealth.
In many cases, law enforcement agenciesdidn’t submit them because the kits weren’t needed for prosecution but at least one county wasn’t even tracking them at the time, according to the investigation.
A five-year project with a $3.4 million dollar budget overseen by Herring’s office resulted in 2,665 kits being tested. Of those, Herring said 851 new DNA profiles have been uploaded into a national database and 354 hits have been sent to law enforcement agencies for further investigation. A hit occurs when DNA evidence in a kit matches existing DNA found at a crime scene or in a database.
Herring said one man has been charged in Spotsylvania as a result of this work and he anticipates more charges being filed as localities reopen cold cases.
Herring said the completion of this project marks the closing of a chapter where sexual assault cases were ‘swept under the rug’ in the commonwealth.
“It means that a wrong has been righted, that justice is closer for more survivors and Virginia is a safer place,” Herring said.
Debbie Smith began her advocacy career after being shown a storage room filled ‘from floor to ceiling’ with untested rape kits. Smith was kidnapped and raped in the woods behind her home in 1989. Her husband, who is a police officer, was asleep inside.
“Each of those kits represents a sexual assault victim that endured that 4 to 6 hour stressful exam as well as continued trauma and embarrassment for something that they are not in anyway responsible for,” Smith said, visibly emotional at Wednesday’s press conference.
“I remember the day that my husband came in and delivered the message that they had gotten a cold hit identification of my perpetrator. It was the first time in six and a half years that I took a deliberate breath. I wanted to live again and it meant that I could live without fear,” Smith continued.
The elimination of the backlog is just one part of what Herring called ‘a transformation’ in the state’s approach to sexual assault cases.
In 2016, he said a law was passed that mandated the immediate testing of rape kits, ensuring that a backlog cannot build up again. Linda Jackson, Director of the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, said law enforcement agencies are required to submit the kit within 60 days of obtaining it. Once it’s in the lab’s possession, Jackson said the average turn-around time is 129 days.
DFS has also created the first statewide tracking system so that law enforcement, hospitals and victims can check the status of a kit at any time.
Herring said the state has also invested in the latest survivor-centered and trauma-informed training for law enforcement agencies to prevent victims from being re-traumatized during investigations.
“We have been telling our stories for the last few years and now somebody not only has heard us but they have taken steps to remedy the situation and that to me means that I have a signifance in this world. That somebody cared about what happened to us,” Smith said.