No one knows how many untested rape kits have been shelved by local police departments throughout North Carolina, leaving victims to wonder if their cases will ever be solved, and leaving perpetrators free to strike again. A new law aims to change that by year's end.
The state budget, enacted this week following a veto override, requires that local law enforcement agencies take inventory of the kits they have and report their findings to the State Crime Lab by January 1.
"Once we know how many untested kits there are around the state and how many of them are testable, we will make a plan and seek the resources to get them tested," Attorney General Josh Stein told The Associated Press in a statement.
North Carolina had been one of several states without legislation regarding testing these kits, leaving local authorities to decide how to handle them. Without dedicated funding and training, many were left untouched in evidence rooms. In some cases, the suspect's identity wasn't in question, or victims may have decided against pressing charges.
"You can't fix a problem until you know you have a problem," said Rep. Billy Richardson, a Democrat from Cumberland County who thinks there could be thousands of untested kits across the state. "It is important that these victims have some resolution to their cases."
Richardson said a voluntary audit conducted by police in his jurisdiction alone turned up more than 1,000 kits.
"Each untested kit is a missed opportunity to bring justice and healing to survivors," said Ilse Knecht, Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Joyful Heart Foundation. Founded by actress Mariska Hargitay of "Law & Order: SVU," the organization is investigating backlogs across the country, uncovering more than 39,000 untested kits in 41 jurisdictions.
"Rape cases didn't always get the priority that they should have," said Lt. John Somerindyke of the Major Crimes Division/Special Victims Unit of the Fayetteville Police Department.
Some agencies, like his own, haven't always had a specialized unit to handle sex crimes, and while he applauds the state's most recent efforts, Somerindyke said still more should be done to make testing all rape kits a priority.
Each kit includes DNA evidence collected from victims by doctors and nurses during a physical exam that can take hours.
"It is a grueling process," Somerindyke said. "All victims deserve to have their kits tested."
The new law requires local agencies to include in their inventory reports kits that: are anonymous; involve a case that has been resolved in court; were not submitted for testing because the suspect confessed; and weren't submitted for testing because an investigation determined the allegations to be unfounded.
"Every testable sexual assault kit in North Carolina must be tested," Stein said. "Sexual assault victims deserve no less."
Testing all kits also can help identify and prosecute serial rapists. When DNA evidence is submitted into CODIS, the national DNA database, forensic scientists can find matches linking offenders to other crimes.
"Perpetrators will commit all kinds of crimes ... against people they know, don't know," Knecht said. We "have to test every kit to get the matches to cases."
According to Laura Brewer, a spokeswoman with North Carolina's Department of Justice, there are approximately 160 recently submitted untested kits at the State Crime Lab. Each one can cost $650 or more to test, but doing so could "reassure victims that our state takes sexual assault crimes seriously," Brewer wrote in an email.