Virginia provides nationwide model for testing rape kits
RICHMOND, Va. — More than 140,000 untested rape evidence kits are collecting dust in crime labs throughout the country – denying justice for rape survivors waiting for the results and allowing rapists to commit more sexual assaults.
Virginia has joined a handful of states that have taken legislative action to end the backlog by adopting a law to ensure that the commonwealth’s untested kits will be processed quickly beginning July 1.
That’s when Senate Bill 291, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Leesburg, takes effect. Under the legislation, the more than 2,000 untested rape kits in Virginia must be tested immediately. In addition, after a doctor examines someone who has been raped and collects evidence of the crime with a rape kit, the kit must be tested for DNA within 60 days.
When Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed the legislation into law, the ceremony was attended by a rape survivor whose handwritten pamphlet prompted the General Assembly to act. Natasha Alexenko said she hopes other states will follow suit.
“This initiative will change America,” she said.
In 1993, Alexenko, then a 20-year-old college student in New York, was violently raped and robbed at gunpoint by an unknown assailant while returning to her apartment. She underwent a rape exam but would wait nearly 10 years for the results.
New York had a backlog of nearly 17,000 untested rape kits in 1999, according to the website EndTheBacklog.org. New York authorities then worked on the problem and cleared the state’s backlog entirely in 2003.
While waiting for the results of her rape exam, Alexenko become a vocal advocate for sexual assault awareness. Among other things, she made informational pamphlets and distributed them wherever she could.
In 2014, one of Alexenko’s pamphlets, which highlighted the national backlog of untested rape kits, found itself on Black’s desk.
Black admitted he was surprised to learn about the backlog. “I thought, ‘What are you talking about – untested rape test kits?’ ”
To understand the status of the issue in Virginia, Black initiated a statewide audit in 2015, with permission from the governor and conducted by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. The audit revealed that Virginia had nearly 3,000 untested rape kits sitting in forensic labs – some dating to 1988.
Rape exams are physically intrusive and taken at a time when the victim typically is traumatized, Black said. “It’s an undertaking for a woman to undergo it, and then to have it (the evidence kit) just sit up on a shelf is a terrible thing.”
Compounding the ordeal is that, before undergoing the exam, rape victims must refrain from bathing, showering, using the restroom, changing clothes, combing hair and cleaning the area where the assault happened, according to the Rape Abuse Incest National Network.
A rape exam can take hours as a forensic practitioner collects hair, oral, anal and vaginal samples, in addition to taking photographs for visual evidence, explained Eileen Davis, who has worked as a forensic nurse in Virginia.
She said the failure to test rape kits not only is an insult to the rape survivors but also has allowed more rapes and other crimes to happen, Davis added. According to EndTheBacklog.org, a project of the nonprofit Joyful Heart Foundation, there are at least 144,000 untested rape nationwide, including 20,000 in Texas and more than 10,000 in Michigan, Florida and Ohio.
When evidence goes untested, predators are not identified and arrested, Davis said. DNA from a rape kit taken in 1998, for example, often matches DNA from more recent exams.
Alexenko’s case reflects that reality. Victor Rondon, the man who raped her in 1993, roamed free until he was arrested on assault charges in 2007 in Las Vegas. In 2008, Rondon was found guilty of eight counts of violent assault and two counts of rape, Black said. Rondon was eventually convicted and sentenced to 44 to 107 years in prison.
Serial rapists pose the greatest danger, Black said. “Not only for rape, but some of these people flip over into murder, as we have seen with the Hannah Graham case.”
Graham was a University of Virginia student who disappeared in 2014. In March, Jesse Matthew, a 34-year-old Charlottesville man, pleaded guilty to her murder. Previously, Matthew had been accused of sexual assault at two other Virginia colleges.
Serial rapists are repeat offenders, Black emphasized. To prevent future crimes, he said, it is critical to test rape kits for the perpetrator’s DNA quickly.
At the bill signing, McAuliffe said the state budget will provide $900,000 annually to clear the backlog of untested rape kits and to ensure that from now on, kits are tested within 60 days after the rape exam has been performed.
Attorney General Mark Herring, who attended the signing, said, “Once we get the backlog cleared out, this new bill should ensure that Virginia never finds itself in that situation again.”
“It is our responsibility,” McAuliffe said, “to provide certainty and ease the pain for women who are haunted by the fear that their attackers could still be out there and could still be free.”
By Rachel Beatrice and Kyle Taylor/ Capital News Service
Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students participating in the program provide state government coverage for Virginia’s community newspapers and other media outlets, under the supervision of Associate Professor Jeff South.
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Besides Virginia, a few other states also have taken action to test untested rape kits:
- Last month, Florida Rick Scott signed into law legislation requiring rape kits to be submitted within 30 days to a crime lab and tested within 120 days.
- In 2015, Pennsylvania started requiring police to collect kits within three days of notification by a hospital or other health care facility and deliver the kits to a lab within 15 days. Testing must be done within six months, followed by notice to the victim or surviving family.
- In September, the Manhattan district attorney awarded about $38 million in grants to law enforcement agencies in 20 states to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits. The funds – generated from settlements with international banks charged with violating U.S. laws – will help test more than 56,000 kits.
To find out more about untested rape kits and related issues, go to:
- The Rape Abuse Incest National Network’s website – rainn.org