The District Attorney’s Office and the Philadelphia Police announced that as many as 65 open rape cases may be impacted following the testing of 1,574 previously untested forensic evidence collection kits, or “rape kits,” some dating back as far as the 1980s.
District Attorney Larry Krasner said on Thursday that he believes his office can proceed with prosecuting many new cases as a result of the evidence, including the cases against two men who allegedly committed rapes in 2000 and 2001.
Overall, the Criminalistics Unit of the police department’s Office of Forensics and Science has tested nearly 4,000 backlogged and new sexual assault kits.
“Now that the backlog is gone, we will be able to significantly decrease the amount of time it will take to process new cases,” Krasner said. “DNA evidence is crucial to effectively identify suspects because without it cases often come down to the victim’s word against the word of the defender.”
Monique Howard, executive director of Women Organized Against Rape (Philadelphia) Center Against Sexual Violence, said the reduction in the backlog of rape kits will be manifold.
“It’s great news. This brings closure to the many victims who have been awaiting next steps in the criminal justice process,” Howard said. “It also offers hope to those who have started the criminal justice process and encourages individuals who have mixed feelings about reporting.”
A widespread backlog
The backlog of untested rape kits has been a national issue for years.
Rape kits are collected if a victim chooses to undergo a forensic exam. During the exam, a medical practitioner collects evidence, including swabs of DNA from the victim’s body or clothes, that could help identify the attacker.
Law enforcement agencies then send the evidence to a lab for analysis. Scientists compare the DNA to information already stored in a number of databases, including the FBI’s national database of DNA from convicted offenders.
“In some cases, DNA evidence can identify a perpetrator even when a victim cannot, which is often the case,” Krasner said. “In other cases, DNA will corroborate a victim’s account of what happened.”
Krasner said it helps victims to have their accounts backed up by science.
However, law enforcement agencies are not always quick to send the rape kits out for analysis. That could be because they lack policies and protocols for testing, they lack training in forensics and DNA testing, or they lack the funds to pay for the testing, according to advocacy group End the Backlog.
In 2015, a USA Today report identified at least 70,000 untested rape kits at more than 1,000 police agencies, but said that represented a fraction of the total number as there are more than 18,000 police agencies nationwide.
Untested kits in Pennsylvania
A 2016 report from state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said there were more than 3,000 untested rape kits across the commonwealth, and more than 1,800 of those had been waiting 12 months or more to be tested. DePasquale reported last month that the number of untested rape kits across the commonwealth has been reduced to 339.
“That’s a nearly 90 percent reduction in the number of victims waiting for agonizingly long periods of time to find out if forensic evidence might help prove what happened to them,” DePasquale said in a press release. “I am pleased by the tremendous progress our crime labs have made, but we cannot rest until the backlog is eliminated and every victim has received justice.”
Krasner said clearing the backlog in Philadelphia has taken seven years.
In 2013, Philadelphia adopted a comprehensive testing program of all new kits and found 1,574 kits, some of which were more than 30 years old. However, the city did not have the funds to test the kits.
That changed after a pair of grants, one in the amount of $419,000 from New York County District Attorney Cy Vance, Jr., and the other for $910,000 from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), were awarded to the Criminalistics Unit.
Since then, in 2015, the Legislature passed Act 27, the Pennsylvania Sexual Assault Testing and Evidence Collection Act, which requires state law enforcement agencies to take possession of any sexual assault evidence collected by health care facilities for sexual assaults reported to have occurred in the agency’s jurisdiction for DNA analysis. The Legislature amended the law in 2018 to require all state forensic labs to complete testing on all sexual assault kits within 180 days of receipt.
Victims of sexual assault who had a rape kit completed and want more information about their kit’s status can contact the police department’s Special Victims Unit at (215) 685-3263 or the District Attorney’s Office at (215) 686-8084/8011. WOAR, which also provides trauma services and counseling via their 24-hour hotline, can be contacted at (215) 985-3333.