The city of Houston’s backlog of untested rape kits – decades in the making and numbering more than 6,600 – will be erased within 14 months through a $4.4 million plan to outsource DNA testing, Mayor Annise Parker announced Wednesday.
The plan, city officials said, would see the Houston Police Department ship the rape kits and DNA evidence from other cases, such as robberies and property crimes, to two private labs for testing. The proposal could bring closure to a rocky decade for the city lab, ridding the institution of a backlog Parker likened to a dragging anchor. The timing is particularly apt, officials said, as oversight for the lab transitions from the HPD to an independent board.
Testing rape kits potentially could identify serial rapists and solve past cases, as occurred after a rape kit in the city’s backlog was tested in 2011. City officials said the testing also could help exonerate those who have been wrongly convicted.
“A rape kit is second only to the rape itself. It degrades the individual, it’s painful, it’s humiliating, and to go through that and then not to have your kit tested is probably the greatest indignity, following a rape, that you can have,” said Councilwoman Ellen Cohen, former director of the Houston Area Women’s Center. “The fact that we set aside the money to do it, the fact that we’re going to be able to keep up and current, means so much to victim-survivors.”
Funding for the plan will come from $2.2 million in federal grants and $2.2 million set aside for testing in the city’s current budget. Contracts with the two firms, Bode Technology Group, of Lorton, Va., and Salt Lake City-based Sorenson Forensics, will come to City Council next week.
Cost drops sharply
The cost per kit will be roughly $400, compared to the typical outsourced cost of $1,100 to $1,300, officials said, because the labs know up front they will be getting a large volume of cases.
In addition to the backlog, the city will ship out 1,450 kits tied to active sexual assault cases, 1,020 DNA samples from other crimes and the 1,000 rape kits expected to be collected over the next year, for a total of about 10,130.
“Of all of the challenges of leading Houston over the last three years, really the most personal has been the issue of decades of untested rape kits,” Parker said. “We are all aware of the problem. But with the serious budget challenges we faced during the recession, it made it very, very difficult to address something that was going to require a significant expenditure of funds to take care of. It’s never been ignored, but we weren’t interested in just a quick fix. We’ve been searching for the appropriate solution.”
The city’s crime lab has been the source of consternation since 2002, when it was shut down temporarily after an audit cited unqualified personnel, lax protocols and shoddy facilities, including a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence. The city has spent untold dollars in staff time and to outsource evidence trying to tackle the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011 that was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.
Parker said the 6,660 backlogged kits have not been tested because no investigator requested it, because other evidence was sufficient to charge the offender, the offender was known to the victim, the victim was not willing to prosecute or other such factors. Many of the cases, she and HPD officials said, have been closed or adjudicated.
A 2011 change in state law requires police agencies to test all such kits in their possession, but Parker said the city’s policy had evolved in that direction anyway, partly because the offender’s DNA may be linked to other crimes, and partly to honor the victims’ decision to undergo the invasive evidence-collection process.
“We were able to leverage it and actually and get the right price to do it all,” HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said. “So, the priority now is ‘test everything,’ and we don’t have to start and pick and choose which case comes ahead of another case.”
Scott Hochberg, who chairs the board formed to govern the independent lab, said the proposal is affordable for taxpayers, gives the lab a clean slate, and gives victims confidence evidence will be tested promptly.
“This is a great solution, it’s well within existing budgets, and it gives us a very firm ground to go forward on,” Hochberg said.
Tim Kupferschmid, executive director of Sorenson Forensics, said he has been testing evidence for HPD for the last few years, but this will mark the largest shipment from the agency. Council members questioned the integrity of the evidence, given its long storage, but Kupferschmid said he foresees no problems.
“DNA are very robust molecules. There is very little you do to it to destroy it once it’s in custody,” he said, adding that the only condition able to destroy DNA evidence is significant water damage, such as flooding.
Without the rape kit backlog, police officials stressed, DNA evidence in property crimes also can be tested. HPD spokesman John Cannon said the agency has a 1,020-case DNA backlog in nonsexual assault cases, including property crimes, some of which date to 2005.
‘A strong message’
Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former policeman, said he hears frustration from the community about investigations of property crimes dragging because HPD has a backlog of more serious DNA evidence to test.
“Giving the public confidence that we’re back up to speed is very important to send a strong message in the realm of public safety,” Gonzalez said. “Houston will be able to say, ‘We solved this problem.’ It’s good for victims, it’s good for public trust.”