Illinois Law Makes Testing Rape Kits Mandatory But Leaves Loopholes
A few days ago (on July 6), Illinois Governor Patrick J. Quinn signed into law a measure that requires law enforcement officials to track and send all DNA evidence, collected from rape victims for testing at a crime lab within 10 days of collection.
“Wait a minute?” I thought, when I came across this bit of news. Isn’t that what the police are supposed to do anyway? Apparently not. It seems most police departments in Illinois allowed detective or department discretion in deciding which rape kits to send to the crime lab.
This means than until now, an investigating officer or public prosecutor could decide not send the collected DNA evidence, also known as rape kit, for testing if he or she thought a specific case won’t stand in court.
That’s what police decided in Carrie’s case. She was a high school student when she was raped in 2008 by her father’s friend in an alley by her home in northern Illinois. Rape by an acquaintance is usually tough to prove in court hence law officials often don’t set much importance on getting rape kits in such cases tested.
In fact, majority of the DNA evidence collected from rape victims in Illinois never gets tested says a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report released a day after the law was passed. Of 7,494 sets of physical evidence collected by the state between 1995 to 2009, only 1,474, (19.7 percent) were actually tested, says the report. The rest were either left in storage or destroyed. This means only one in five rape kits are tested. The actual numbers are probably higher since HRW was only given data by 127 of the 267 Illinois law enforcement agencies it contacted.
In Carrie’s case, she had immediately called the police and gone to a local hospital to have her body examined for a rape kit. The police officials who took her report told her that they had arrested the suspect earlier on suspicion of rape. But months later she later found that they never proceeded with investigations in her case. The officials didn’t even interview the suspect or other possible witnesses. Carrie’s rape kit is probably still sitting in police storage somewhere. Incidentally, according to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics data, 77 percent of all rapes are committed by non-strangers.
Rape kits require collecting DNA evidence such as semen, saliva, hair etc, from the victim’s body. The process is invasive, can last between four to six hours and can be harrowing for an already traumatized victim. Julie, a 25-year-old rape victim calls the process “doubly tragic” (see embedded video).
“Having to undress in front of people you don’t know, having pictures taken, having people prick and prod at your fingernails, taking black light and going from head to toe looking for anything they can find… It literally feels like your body is turned into a crime scene,” she says in an HRW video (add link) describing her experience with the rape kit. And then to learn, as she did, that her kit never made it to a crime lab and her attacker was still at large. “It’s hard,” she says. “It’s difficult to think that you potentially could be setting someone free to do it to somebody else…”
Rape kit testing can be used to identify the assailant, confirm a suspect’s contact with the victim, corroborate the victim’s account of the assault, connect the case to other incidents and exonerate innocent suspects or defendants.
National studies have shown that cases in which rape kit evidence was tested were more likely to proceed through the criminal justice system and lead to arrests. Once New York City adopted the Giuliani-era policy to test every booked rape kit, its arrest rate for rape rose from 40 percent to 70 percent. In contrast, Illinois’ arrest rate for sexual assault is 11 percent – one of the lowest in the nation and far below the national average of 22 percent.
One hopes with the new law in place things will change for the better. But there’s a catch here too. The 2010 Sexual Assault Submission Act comes with a caveat that says all rape kits should be tested within six months only if “sufficient staffing and resources” are available.
A nice, big, loophole for law enforcement officials to slip through. HRW says the state’s crime labs don’t have the capacity to handle the influx of rape kit testing that will result from the new law – one hole to start with already.
“The data suggest that Illinois law enforcement just doesn’t see rape as a serious crime that’s worthy of time and resources,” says Sarah Tofte, author of the HRW report. But Illinois isn’t the only state with a rape kit-testing backlog. “Thousands of rape kits remain untested in cities including Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, San Antonio and San Diego,” says The New York Times. Along the same lines, The Baltimore Sun recently blogged about “Baltimore’s incredible shrinking rape total“
I’d take Tofte’s comment a step further and say that despite all the campaigning and advocacy, the sad fact is that rape still isn’t viewed as a serious crime in general. A telling example is this response to Julie’s video that HRW posted on its facebook page:
“Survived rape… lol. You live with rape it is not a fatal desease like cancer FFS. Gathering evidence is a necessity, DNA testing is a necessity. Therefore body examination is a necessity. Stop whining.”
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