New Mexico’s Rape Kit Backlog, by Mary Ann Amos, Retake Our Democracy Research Activist
“When tested, DNA evidence contained inside rape kits is an invaluable investigative tool to solve and prevent crime. It can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders, and bring opportunities for justice and healing to survivors. To accomplish these things, however, rape kits must be tested.” endthebacklog.org
To put a human face on this issue, at the end of this analysis, we are including a link to a USA Today story that includes a 75 second video of an older woman describing her experience having to undergo a forensic examination to develop a Rape Kit. We also include two videos at the end of this summary, one shows the step-by-step process a woman goes through if she elects to participate in a forensic examination. The second and longer video is the personal story of a Connecticut woman who was brutally raped.
In Brief: New Mexico (NM) is thought to have more than 5300 untested rape kits stored across the state that include DNA and other forensic information that could be used to prosecute rapists and potentially take them off the streets. Although a state task force was established in 2016 and the Department of Justice awarded NM almost two million dollars to help address the backlog, no statewide reform has been enacted. It is vital for public safety that New Mexico determines all causes of the backlog problem, prioritize and process the existing untested rape kits and begins utilizing the forensic data to remove often-violent criminals from our communities. Going forward, the state must implement new procedures that will make certain each rape kit is tested in a timely manner so that new backlogs are not created.
Rape kits are created as a way to preserve forensic evidence following sexual assault and include swabs containing DNA that are collected immediately after the attack. Victims are examined and photographed in an invasive hours-long exam in order to obtain identifying DNA left by the perpetrator. DNA evidence is essential in determining if an attack has in fact occurred, in identifying a known suspect, and in potentially finding a matching DNA profile in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) national database of 10 million.
- According to the Office of the State Auditor, NM has the highest number of untested rape kits per capita of any state, with 20% of these untested kit from sexual assault on minors.
- Two laboratories in the state are responsible for processing the DNA in rape kits, the City of Albuquerque Forensic Laboratory that tests kits from the Albuquerque police department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, and the Department of Public Safety Forensic Laboratory in Santa Fe that tests kits from the rest of the state. The Albuquerque metro area jurisdiction has 74% of the untested kits.
- The reasons for kits going untested are several: Confusion on the part of law enforcement agencies as to whether state law requires all kits to be submitted for testing (It does by virtue of NMSA 1978, Section 30-9-19), lack of funding and personnel at the forensic laboratories, poor procedures for tracking the status of kits, or according to the State Auditor, the kits had “fallen through the cracks in evidence management systems,” and attitudes by individual law enforcement that discount the stories of rape victims even though studies have shown these victims are no more likely to falsify their reports than are victims of other crimes.
- Public safety is one of the most important goals of government and removing rapists from our New Mexico communities where one in every four women and one in 20 men has experienced sexual assault must be a priority.
- According to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust, Colorado, Tennessee, Michigan, Florida, and Kentucky as well as other states have laws which now require all rape kits be submitted to a laboratory within 14 to 30 days and additionally sets time limits in which the laboratories must have completed processing the kits. So it is not beyond the capacity of our state to address this backlog.
- When the city of Detroit confronted a backlog of over 11,000 untested rape kits, the relevant results from processing all kits were submitted to the CODIS database resulted in identifying 742 potential serial rapists in 40 states.
- Colorado approached its problem by sending its 3500 backlogged kits to a private laboratory for immediate testing, hiring 16 more scientists at the state forensic laboratory, and requiring all kits be sent for testing within 21 days.
Recommendations: New Mexico must reform the policies and procedures associated with the handling of rape kits by passing a law requiring law enforcement officials submit for testing all kits associated with a police report within a defined time period. Additionally laboratories must be required to complete the processing of each kit within a prescribed period of time. The state must adequately fund personnel who are essential to the collection of kit material and those who will carry out the DNA analysis, provide education for law enforcement officers aimed at an attitudinal change in valuing the victims’ account of the rape, and develop improved systems for tracking rape kits.
The click here to a woman’s very personal and powerful description of her experience undergoing a forensic examination to develop a Rape Kit. It is only 75 seconds, but after hearing this, try to appreciate what it must be like to have a kit developed and then never processed.
Below is a longer, five minute video that provides the step-by-step process of having a forensic examination conducted.
Finally, an interview with a Connecticut woman who was brutally raped and left for dead.