Sunday, December 6, 2020

New York Initiative to Help Other Cities Clear Rape-Kit Backlogs

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Michael Whyte
Crime Scene Officer and Fingerprint Expert with over 7 years experience in Crime Scene Investigation and Latent Print Analysis. The opinions or assertions contained on this site are the private views of the author and are not to be construed as those of any professional organisation or policing body.
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In 2000, New York had 17,000 untested rape kits, a yearslong accumulation of potential evidence in some of the city’s most violent crimes. Over the next four years, in a push to clear the backlog, the city had the kits tested. The result was 49 indictments connected to unsolved cases in Manhattan alone.

Seeing these efforts as a model for jurisdictions around the country to replicate, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, announced a program on Wednesday under which $35 million in civil forfeiture assets will be used to help other cities and states tackle their own backlogs, which, nationally, total in the hundreds of thousands.

In an interview, Mr. Vance said the effort was likely to have an impact far beyond the communities that receive the aid.

“Rape kits that are untested are not just going to solve crimes in the jurisdictions where they are, but because some of these people are serial offenders, this could lead to solutions of crimes all over the country,” he said.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, announced on Wednesday that his office had committed up to $35 million to eliminate a backlog of rape kits that await testing. (NY Times)

A rape kit is the collection of physical evidence gathered when a sexual assault victim is examined. Such kits are tested for DNA evidence that may identify, or rule out, suspects. The initiative announced by Mr. Vance is intended to assist cities like Memphis, which has a backlog of 11,000 untested rape kits, and Las Vegas, which estimates its backlog at 4,000. The program is to be run with the assistance of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a victims’ advocacy organisation that for the last several years has made clearing rape-kit backlogs a priority.

Joining Mr. Vance at the announcement was Mariska Hargitay, a star of “Law and Order: SVU,” a show that, in its depiction of a fictional Manhattan district attorney’s office, has become synonymous for many with the real district attorney’s office and, specifically, its sex crimes unit Ms. Hargitay is the president of the foundation.

In her remarks, she said the rape-kit initiative showed victims of sexual assault that “the power of the law is on their side.” Also in attendance was Mr. Vance’s counterpart from Detroit, the Wayne County prosecutor, Kym L. Worthy. In 2009, Ms. Worthy found 11,341 untested rape kits while touring an abandoned warehouse. After testing 2,000 of the kits, her office turned up 473 matches related to unsolved crimes in 23 states.

Ms. Worthy said that a combination of public and private financing had helped the authorities in Wayne County significantly reduce their backlog, but that 2,400 kits were still untested. She said the county would apply for some of the money being made available by Mr. Vance’s office. Ms. Worthy said she had seen a shift in public attitudes about the issue of untested kits. “The more people read about it and know about it, the more people ask me about how they can help,” she said. Mr. Vance said, “It’s unacceptable, that when victims have undergone this rigorous process to have those kits just sit on a shelf.”

Natasha Alexenko, a New York resident who was robbed and sexually assaulted in 1993 and now acts as an advocate for rape survivors, also spoke at the announcement. Ms. Alexenko said her rape kit was not processed until the early 2000s. In 2007, she said, the man who raped her but who had not yet been linked to the attack was arrested for jaywalking in Las Vegas. She said he then assaulted a police officer, and a DNA sample was taken and uploaded to Codis, a national database.

His genetic profile matched evidence collected as part of Ms. Alexenko’s rape kit. That, she said, gave her immense relief and a sense of justice. The man was ultimately convicted. Linda Fairstein, a former sex crimes prosecutor in Manhattan and Joyful Heart Foundation trustee, said she thought the initiative was a “brilliant idea.”

“To have the voice of law enforcement, combined with victims’ advocacy groups, is a powerful and unique opportunity to make sure every jurisdiction across the country is aware of how important this is,” Ms. Fairstein said. Another crucial aspect of the effort, she said, was its potential to exonerate people who have been wrongfully convicted.

The money that Mr. Vance has committed is to come from a settlement with the French back BNP Paribas. That settlement required the bank to pay a total of $8.83 billion to various entities in the United States for violating financial sanctions, with $448.7 million going to the district attorney’s office and $447 million going to New York City.

Before distributing money elsewhere the district attorney’s office and the Joyful Heart Foundation will confirm that no jurisdictions in New York State are facing rape-kit backlogs. They will then conduct a nationwide survey to determine how many untested rape kits there are and where they are languishing. The Justice Department estimated there were 200,000 untested rape kits around the country in 2011.

The district attorney’s office will then invite local law enforcement agencies around the country to apply for funding. Processing each rape kit costs $500 to $1,000.

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