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.
City Hall celebration
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.
The rape kit backlog was one of the most troublesome aspects of the Houston Police Department crime lab breakdown. In 2002, DNA testing at the lab was temporarily suspended after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and inadequate facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence. The lab resumed operations about seven years ago, and since has transitioned to being run by a city-appointed board independent of the police department, though the lab still is housed within police headquarters.
Citing that history, Parker said forensic work in Houston was “sometimes an afterthought,” but praised the new lab, as well as HPD, for working to clear the backlog. She also credited Cornyn with advocating for the renewal of the Debbie Smith Reauthorization Act, which will provide more than $190 million over the next five years to cities and labs working to clear sexual assault kit inventories and provide DNA training.
“Now, 6,600 kits later, we’re in a position where we will never allow that to happen again,” Parker said.
City Councilman C.O. “Brad” Bradford, who was aware of the crime lab’s problems when he served seven years as chief of police, said it was “encouraging” to see the expense and time that went into clearing the backlog lead to potential arrests and closure for sexual assault victims.
The city and HPD’s view of the importance of DNA evidence has evolved rapidly in recent years, Bradford said.
“I feel comfortable with where we have come the last 10 years with DNA evidence,” he said. “Now, we’re identifying the importance of this evidence, keeping it in the forefront of the conversation and giving it the resources it needs.”
A case in point
Clete Snell, a criminologist at University of Houston-Downtown, said the fact that the testing is generating so many matches to the DNA of alleged or convicted offenders underscores the need for crime labs to be properly equipped and staffed.
“This goes to show the importance of testing those kits as they’re coming in. There should never have been a backlog,” Snell said. “Having to wait this long a period of time is an injustice to the victims in these cases.”
City Councilman and former HPD Sgt. Ed Gonzalez said he is glad that, of the cases reviewed so far, no false arrests have been identified.
“We’ve moved from that early phase of testing everything to being more now in the investigative phase. We’ve just got to moving forward,” he said. “Obviously, we look forward to the day when we get the final results of all of this effort. We’re in a better place now than we were, definitely, years ago.”