When you say hear words “untested rape kits” and you see a number like “3,400,” the first word that comes to mind probably is, “scandal.”
But that word somewhat overstates the situation, judging by the reporting that we’ve seen about the nearly 3,400 untested rape kits in Minnesota.
Instead, a better word to sum up what’s happening is “resources” - as in, “Minnesota police officers are handling rape kits in accordance with current rules. Those rules could be improved; but doing so is going to take more resources.”
Meaning tax dollars, to analyze the rape kits that now are routinely being stacked on shelves.
A rape kit includes evidence collected by a sexual assault forensic exam after an alleged sexual assault. If the victim didn’t know the assailant, then the DNA evidence from a rape kit can be matched against criminal-justice databases.
Now and then, that yields a match. And in real life as well as on crime shows on TV, suspects can get arrested and convicted as a result.
Judging by the latest accounts, those particular rape kits already are being tested. The kits in those cases are high-priority items in police stations in Minnesota (and, we’d bet, North Dakota), and seem to get tested with all due speed.
The question is, what about the cases where the suspect’s identity already is known - cases such as an alleged domestic assault?
In such cases and others (such as those in which the initial complainant chooses not to press charges), there’s no immediate law-enforcement need to process the rape kit.
After all, the DNA evidence that the rape kit yields won’t have any bearing on the case at hand. And given that it costs between $500 and $1,000 to process a rape kit, prosecutors and police departments understandably have sent those untested kits into storage.
Now, here’s the thing: Testing those kits can yield a law enforcement advantage, too. But if police have been scrupulous in their categorizing of the kits, then that advantage might accrue to other cases, not necessarily the one that brought about the evidence collection in the first place.
That’s because putting DNA evidence into national registries can and does yield matches down the line.
As the mayor of Memphis, Tenn., has put it, “the inventory of sexual assault kits is a treasure trove of evidence. By mining this evidence, we can not only solve sexual assault cases, we can solve multiple crimes and bring hundreds of criminals to justice.”
In Houston, for example, some 6,700 rape kits sat untested on shelves. “Then in 2013, Mayor Annise Parker launched a push to test the kits,” The Atlantic magazine reported in February.
“The results are stunning. Tests turned up 850 matches in the FBI’s national DNA database. Prosecutors have charged 29 people and obtained six convictions so far.”
The DNA evidence that rape kits yield is playing a role in law enforcement nationwide. As a result, some states already have mandated the testing of all rape kits and have come up with the money to pay for it.
Minnesota and North Dakota should consider doing the same. - Tom Dennis for the Grand Forks Herald