Advocates hope new Texas funding for testing rape evidence helps victims heal

Sep. 4, 2013Dallas Morning News

A new boost in state funding will allow police in Dallas and other parts of Texas to test thousands of rape kits for DNA evidence, raising hopes that cold cases can be prosecuted and victims of unsolved assaults can gain peace of mind.

A lack of funding has prompted police departments to set priorities for testing kits, leaving thousands in storage. But the Legislature allocated $11 million in the state budget that took effect Sunday. The Department of Public Safety aims to test all of the outstanding kits but doesn’t yet know if the funding will stretch that far.

Rape kits are the evidence collected from sexual assault victims during forensic exams at hospitals. The exam can be a traumatic experience for the victim, and advocates hope that many more will be able to find peace if more perpetrators are caught.

“All that angst and agitation can be channeled just for one person, instead of half the population,” said Tammy Kemp, administrative chief over the Dallas County district attorney’s Family Violence and Sex Assaults Unit.

Departments across the state reported about 18,000 untested kits dating back to Sept. 1, 1996, DPS officials say. The Dallas Police Department reported 4,144 untested kits, while Fort Worth had 1,018.

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said the agency will take bids from contractors this fall to decide which labs will test the kits. The testing is expected to take two years, and the DPS will enter the results into the Combined DNA Index System, an FBI database that matches DNA profiles of suspects.

Sgt. Patrick Welsh, supervisor of the Dallas police sexual assault unit, said the Dallas department tests all kits that are deemed necessary for prosecution regardless of funding pressures. But that may not be the case across Texas.

The Dallas Police Department has kits processed by the Southwestern Institute of Forensic Science. Welsh said costs vary for testing depending on the contents of the kits, but the usual cost is about $500.

“There’s probably some feelings that some departments may not have the analysis due to funding or they may just not have the ability to get them all processed,” Welsh said.

He said that in many cases, kits aren’t tested because the victim did not stay engaged in the investigation long enough to prosecute. Many victims who don’t aid prosecution are homeless, involved in prostitution or addicted to drugs. Welsh said they are often difficult to even find.

“We have to have the complainant if we’re going to prosecute,” he said.

Welsh said it remains to be seen how the DPD and other departments will handle the results of kits for victims who were not cooperative and whether they will reach out to the victims.

“If they suddenly became engaged in the system and we knew who the offender was, we’d do everything we could to prosecute this offender,” he said. “No doubt about it.”

Welsh said the department typically gets DNA matches through the FBI database on a monthly basis from Texas and around the country. Sometimes, officers find that an offender has committed multiple assaults.

Getting new funding to catch up on the testing has been a long process. Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, pushed through a bill four years ago that requires that untested kits be tested whenever funding is available.

At the time, she said, few legislators even knew that rape kits went untested.

“Tracking down, prosecuting and punishing rapists and other violent criminals is a fundamental responsibility,” Davis said in a written statement. “Every untested rape kit and case that doesn’t get pursued represents a criminal who could be running free in our neighborhoods and threatening the safety of Texas families.”

Kemp said catching up on the tests could prevent future crimes.

“The sad thing about it is when abusers go unchecked, they continue to abuse,” she said.

Follow Liz Farmer on Twitter at @liz_farmer.

DNA evidence

About rape kits: Kits consist of physical evidence taken during a hospital exam after a sexual assault. They include blood samples, swabs and other evidence.

Backlog: About 18,000 kits across the state are untested. That includes 4,144 reported by the Dallas Police Department and 1,018 untested kits from Fort Worth.

Cost: Testing typically costs about $500 per kit. The state has provided $11 million. DPS officials hope that’s enough to test all the kits but won’t know until bids are accepted for a contract.