Expert Commentary

The road ahead: Unanalyzed evidence in sexual assault cases

2011 report by the National Institute of Justice on neglected evidence problems in sexual assault cases nationwide.

Law enforcement authorities nationwide have continued to uncover sexual assault evidence in their own files that has never been scientifically evaluated. The number of cases implicated is significant; for example, in Los Angeles alone, there are 10,000; in Dallas, 12,000; and in Detroit, 10,500. In some instances, sexual assault kits (SAKs), which are designed to collect biological evidence in relation to crimes such as rape, were not sent to be analyzed in a lab for legitimate reasons. Many cases never went to court and triggered further analysis. But the pervasive lack of consistent or standard reasoning for leaving SAKs unanalyzed raises troubling questions about the justice system at large.

In 2011, the National Institute of Justice published a report, “The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases,” providing an overview of the situation and the contributing factors to the ongoing problem. These backlogs and delays may lead to a lack of justice for victims, the report notes, and “in worst-case scenarios … lead to additional victimization by serial offenders or the incarceration of people wrongly con­victed of a crime.”

The report’s findings include:

  • As an indicator of how widespread this problem has become, “18% of unsolved alleged sexual assaults that occurred from 2002 to 2007 contained forensic evidence that was still in police custody (not submitted to a crime lab for analysis.)”
  • One major challenge is that 43% of law enforcement agencies “do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence, either in their inventory or after it is sent to the crime lab.”
  • On average, 50% to 60% of SAKs test positive for biological material that does not belong to the victim.
  • Survey responses indicated that there may be some misunderstanding of the value of biological evidence. 44% of the law enforcement agencies said that one of the reasons they did not send evidence to the lab was that a suspect had not been identified. 15% said that they did not submit evidence because “analysis had not been requested by a prosecutor.”
  • Due to lack of sufficient resources, it may be impossible to analyze all the newly discovered SAKs. Different cities are prioritizing in various ways. In Dallas, for example, “only unsolved stranger rapes are being tested; based on a preliminary analysis, this represents 20% to 25% percent of the recently discovered evidence.”
  • Various states and jurisdictions have different statutes of limitations rules relating to sexual assault and cases with DNA evidence. These continue to evolve, but there remain difficult questions about whether or not all SAKs should be tested both to provide resolution for victims and to shed light on other cases of rape or sexual assault.

The report concludes: “As the nation grapples with the discovery of thousands of older sexual assault kits, it is crucial that we balance justice, public safety and the victims’ needs. The goal, of course, is to move beyond the ‘crisis man­agement’ of the moment to the adoption of systematic practices, procedures and protocols that will prevent this situation from ever happening again.”

Tags: crime, law, sex crimes, policing

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