Re­view shows thou­sands of untested rape kits in state

Num­ber has nearly dou­bled since 2016 statewide au­dit

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Catherine Rentz

Ten of the largest po­lice de­part­ments in Mary­land re­ported hav­ing more than 6,500 untested rape kits early this year — nearly dou­ble the 3,397 untested kits they re­ported in a statewide au­dit in 2016, ac­cord­ing to new records re­cently ob­tained by The Bal­ti­more Sun through a pub­lic records re­quest.

Po­lice say the dra­matic in­crease in untested rape kits is largely due to a new state law re­quir­ing au­thor­i­ties to re­tain the kits for at least 20 years. But it’s also be­cause Prince Ge­orge’s County re­ported more than 2,000 older untested kits that had not been in­cluded in the pre­vi­ous au­dit.

Mary­land is now among more than 20 states that have passed laws in re­cent years re­quir­ing au­thor­i­ties to re­tain or process untested kits. Late dis­cov­er­ies of thou­sands of aban­doned, untested rape ev­i­dence kits in cities such as Detroit, Hous­ton and Cleve­land have led to hun­dreds of con­vic­tions of sex­ual as­sault of­fend­ers.

Po­lice in sev­eral ju­ris­dic­tions told The Sun that most of the untested kits rep­re­sent cases that they are tak­ing a fresh look at.

Karen S. Mont­gomery, a re­tired state sen­a­tor from Mont­gomery County who spon­sored leg­is­la­tion in 2015 that re­quired po­lice to re­port untested rape kits, said the grow­ing num­ber of untested kits was “out­ra­geous,” but not un­ex­pected.

For decades, she said, law en­force­ment held “a prej­u­dice against women who claimed rape and were re­luc­tant to vig­or­ously in­ves­ti­gate it.”

“That is begin­ning to change,” she said.

KITS ,

KITS ,

“Women are more in­volved in the process and are say­ing that this is a crime and I’m not tol­er­at­ing this any­more.”

Rape kits, also known as sex­ual as­sault ev­i­dence kits, are used to col­lect ev­i­dence from the body and cloth­ing of some­one who claims or is be­lieved to be the vic­tim of a rape or other kind of sex­ual as­sault.

Mary­land po­lice of­fi­cials say the ris­ing num­ber of untested kits across the state is a dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stance than cities like Detroit, in that Mary­land’s do not rep­re­sent a “back­log” of ig­nored ev­i­dence. Many older kits in Mary­land had al­ready been re­viewed and pur­posely not tested, ac­cord­ing to po­lice.

Po­lice in Mary­land gave sev­eral rea­sons for not test­ing kits be­fore­hand: A vic­tim de­clined to pur­sue charges; pros­e­cu­tors de­cided against tak­ing the case; the vic­tim wanted to re­main anony­mous; DNA test­ing at the time was too ex­pen­sive. There are also untested kits from cases where the DNA be­longed to a known sus­pect, which some coun­ties — in­clud­ing Bal­ti­more County — have not tra­di­tion­ally tested even though such DNA has helped find re­peat of­fend­ers else­where.

Alexan­dria Cic­cone said that when she re­ported her rape in May 2013 and un­der­went a sex­ual as­sault foren­sic exam at Mercy Med­i­cal Cen­ter, she did so as an anony­mous “Jane Doe” and chose not to pur­sue charges at the time. But when she did come for­ward two years later, it was too late. She found out that her kit had not only never been tested, but that it had been de­stroyed.

“I should be shocked,” Cic­cone said of the grow­ing num­ber of untested kits.

The Sun typ­i­cally does not iden­tify vic­tims of sex­ual as­sault, but Cic­cone has been among those who told her story pub­licly to lobby for leg­is­la­tion re­quir­ing longer re­ten­tion of rape kits. She said she thought po­lice were count­ing the older untested kits and re­view­ing cases “be­cause some­one else is light­ing a fire telling them to do this.”

Ilsa Knecht, a pol­icy di­rec­tor for Joy­ful Heart Foun­da­tion, a na­tional rape sur­vivors ad­vo­cacy or­ga­ni­za­tion, said it’s not un­com­mon for agen­cies to find hun­dreds of untested kits once they start do­ing au­dits. “These num­bers are fluid,” she said.

The new num­bers come from a sur­vey of untested rape kits sent to po­lice de­part­ments by the Mary­land at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice in March. The of­fice wanted up­dated untested kit num­bers so it could ap­ply for fed­eral fund­ing to help process some of the ev­i­dence, said Raquel Coombs, a spokes­woman for the of­fice.

The state even­tu­ally won the $2.6 mil­lion fed­eral grant to help process many of the kits, cre­ate a bet­ter ev­i­dence track­ing sys­tem and hire sur­vivor ad­vo­cates.

Po­lice clas­si­fied most of the untested kits, or 4,638, as “un­able to cat­e­go­rize.” Ac­cord­ing to po­lice, most of these are years-old and some­times decades-old cases po­lice are re- re­view­ing to see whether there is a vi­able pros­e­cu­tion.

Po­lice marked about 25 per­cent, or 1,732 of the untested kits, as “await­ing test­ing,” ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey re­sponses. About 400 kits were from anony­mous “Jane Does,” which are gen­er­ally not tested in Mary­land, and an ad­di­tional 82 kits, or about 1 per­cent, were “un­founded,” mean­ing ei­ther no rape oc­curred or it was a false ac­cu­sa­tion. Po­lice gen­er­ally do not test un­founded cases.

The at­tor­ney gen­eral’s of­fice sent a sur­vey to 13 po­lice de­part­ments that rep­re­sented 90 per­cent of the untested kits in the 2016 au­dit. Nine agen­cies re­sponded. The Bal­ti­more Sun reached out to the four that did not re­spond. The Car­roll County Sher­iff’s Of­fice and Sal­is­bury Po­lice Depart­ment did not re­spond ei­ther to the sur­vey or to The Sun’s inquiries. The Calvert County’s Sher­iff Depart­ment re­sponded with its up­dated num­ber of untested kits. The Cam­bridge Po­lice Depart­ment re­sponded to The Sun, re­port­ing 29 untested kits.

Prince Ge­orge’s County had the big­gest in­crease, re­port­ing 2,747 untested kits, which is up from 99 in 2016, ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey.

Prince Ge­orge’s po­lice spokes­woman Jen­nifer Donelan told The Sun that most of the ad­di­tional untested kits come from stored DNA ev­i­dence from older sex­ual as­sault cases. She said a now-ter­mi­nated DNA lab man­ager had re­ported in­ac­cu­rate num­bers in the 2016 au­dit.

“Our new lab­o­ra­tory man­ager es­ti­mates we will be an­a­lyz­ing about 900 of those older cases sim­ply to pre­serve DNA pro­files,” Donelan said. “In terms of our cur­rent case load, right now, we have a to­tal of 60 sex­ual as­sault kits pend­ing anal­y­sis for pros­e­cu­tion, which is down from 99 in 2016.”

Mont­gomery County re­ported 1,510 untested kits, the sec­ond-high­est num­ber re­ported.

Most of Mont­gomery’s untested kits also rep­re­sent older sex­ual as­sault cases that po­lice are re­search­ing now to de­ter­mine what to process, ac­cord­ing to Lt. Jor­dan Satin­sky.

Bet­ter tech­nol­ogy and less ex­pen­sive DNA test­ing have en­abled po­lice to take a fresh look at cases, Satin­sky said. Po­lice have been reach­ing out to vic­tims and re­view­ing ev­i­dence and so far, an­other 400 kits have been tested this year and an­other 200 are ex­pected to be tested in com­ing months, he said.

“We’re bet­ter at test­ing now,” Satin­sky said. “We’re try­ing to help these vic­tims in a bet­ter way.”

He said Mont­gomery po­lice test most of the cur­rent sex­ual as­sault cases as they come through.

Some of the coun­ties, in­clud­ing Mont­gomery, Prince Ge­orge’s and Howard, held onto rape ev­i­dence much longer than other de­part­ments, help­ing to ex­plain their rel­a­tively high num­bers.

Be­fore leg­is­la­tion passed last year re­quir­ing agen­cies to hold on to kits for 20 years, some po­lice agen­cies were de­stroy­ing kits months or years af­ter ex­am­i­na­tion. An in­ves­ti­ga­tion by The Sun found Bal­ti­more County had been dis­card­ing cer­tain kits as early as one year af­ter the exam.

The num­ber of untested kits in Bal­ti­more County in­creased nearly 60 per­cent, from 197 kits to 310. The num­ber of untested kits in Anne Arun­del County nearly dou­bled from 207 to 394. Spokes­peo­ple from Anne Arun­del and Bal­ti­more County de­part­ments ex­plained that the in­creases re­sulted from the state law passed last year.

Bal­ti­more County’s num­bers do not in­clude DNA ev­i­dence from hun­dreds of sex­ual as­sault cases dat­ing back to 1977. A spokesper­son told The Sun that the depart­ment hasn’t in­cluded the cold-case ev­i­dence in the sur­veys be­cause it was col­lected be­fore rape kit pro­ce­dures were for­mal­ized at the Greater Bal­ti­more Med­i­cal Cen­ter.

Bal­ti­more County de­scribed al­most all of its untested kits as “un­able to cat­e­go­rize.” Five of its kits were await­ing test­ing. Forty-seven were clas­si­fied as Jane Doe kits.

The Bal­ti­more Po­lice Depart­ment’s num­ber of untested rape kits stayed about the same as 2016, at around 900. All of the city’s untested kits rep­re­sent older cases dat­ing back 30 years, or those they re­viewed and de­cided not to test.

Steven O'Dell, chief of the Bal­ti­more po­lice foren­sics lab, said an­a­lysts cur­rently test nearly ev­ery rape kit they re­ceive ev­ery month, un­less the case is un­founded or the sam­ple isn’t vi­able.

The num­ber of untested kits in the Howard and Fred­er­ick county po­lice de­part­ments stayed about the same, at around 500 and 145, re­spec­tively be­tween the two years. Mary­land State Po­lice re­ported a de­crease in untested kits, from 57 to 46. Har­ford County and Calvert County also re­ported de­creases from 107 to 66 and from 48 to 24, re­spec­tively.

“We’re try­ing to help these vic­tims in a bet­ter way.”

Lt. Jor­dan Satin­sky, Mont­gomery County po­lice

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