Memphis TV station WREG found that more than a thousand rape kits — evidence of sexual assault used to help identify an attacker — went untested for DNA from 2007-2009.
The city of Memphis collected the kits, and in thousands of cases decided for various reasons not to send them to be tested. They included instances in which a “victim decides not to press charges, date rapes, domestic sexual assaults, and many times when the victim does not know the attacker.”
When the kits are not tested, victims don’t have much hope for justice, and police don’t have the evidence they need to link one attack to another through DNA databases.
In one year, only 6 percent of the rape kits handled by the city were tested; in another, 9 percent were.
After the TV station reported the story, the city shipped 600 kits to the state crime lab for testing. The city went on to change its official policy: Now it will send all rape kits for testing.
I asked reporter Keli Rabon to tell us more about how she found and reported the story. Below is our edited e-mail exchange.
Al Tompkins: How did you hear about this story?
Keli Rabon: In November, we saw a CBS News investigation about rape kit testing from other parts of the country, and wanted to see what the situation was in Memphis.
How did you find the victims whose rape kits were not tested?
Rabon: We went through hundreds of police reports and looked at the information available on each case. In most all of the cases, the victim’s name was listed but the phone numbers were often disconnected. Utilizing public records and online searches, I tracked down phone numbers for dozens of victims. Most victims were hesitant to talk on camera about their story and what may or may not have happened to their kit. But they all remembered the painful and embarrassing process they had to go through, as evidence was collected within hours of their attack.
Why on earth would police not send these kits away for testing? Is it money?
Rabon: That’s a great question. We don’t know why they don’t test. Police say they test what they think is needed.
Police can send the kit to be processed (to see if sperm can be detected on the sample) but the DA’s office must sign off on the DNA testing. We’re told that, typically, the DA will not sign off on DNA testing unless police have developed a suspect. So in cases where the suspect was “Unknown,” it’s unlikely that the kit would be DNA-tested if police were unable to find a suspect. In cases of boyfriend/girlfriend or husband/wife sexual assault, police say it’s unlikely that those kits would be tested because the question is about consensuality, not “did a sexual act occur?”
But if the kit is never tested, the suspect’s DNA is not loaded into the national database [CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, established and funded by the FBI], thus reducing the chance of solving other crimes in other jurisdictions.
In Tennessee, the initial processing and DNA testing of rape kits is FREE to local law enforcement. It is already factored into the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation’s state budget, though that may be changing in July due to budget cuts.
What changed after your reporting?
Rabon: Two days after our stories aired, the city of Memphis announced changes to its rape kit testing policy. They have gathered 600 backlogged rape kits that have never been analyzed, and are in the process of sending them to TBI for testing. Now, all rape kits will be sent for testing.
Is it fair to say this story would play out in other cities?
Rabon: Yes. It is definitely worth the time and effort of looking into. There may not be a problem like there was in Memphis, but you don’t know until [you] start digging. One thing we found when we talked to advocates is that they have been waiting on a story like this to be told for a long time, but they didn’t know who was going to tell the story.
What advice do you have for other reporters to help them get started?
- Gathering incident reports is crucial to finding a victim. Know where victims go to get their rape kits administered.
- Talk to victim advocates and see if they’re aware of the problem. Be careful here — many advocate groups work closely with the police and DA’s office, so politics can come into play.
- Verify the numbers and don’t just take what they give you the first time. Check with the police department, the DA’s office, and the agency/lab that does the testing. In our case, it was a state agency (TBI), but that may vary in other places.
- Remember, all rapes don’t have a rape kit. Ask for “rape kit numbers” not just “rapes.” Understand that “rape kits” can also be administered in cases of other sexual assaults, not just rape.
- Understand the difference between the rape kit being ‘analyzed’ or ‘processed,’ and the rape kit being ‘DNA Tested.’ This will help in asking the right questions early on.
- We purchased our own rape kit on the Internet. It helped to add a visual element to a difficult story to tell in pictures. Being able to look at the kit and the contents inside helped us understand how invasive the procedure is for these men and women, and how delicate we needed to be in our storytelling.