9 Investigates: Unprocessed Rape Kits

Monday, February 9th 2015, 10:35 pm
By: News 9

For every four rape exam kits booked into Oklahoma's largest police departments, just one of them, on average, actually gets processed in a lab. That means there are thousands of untested rape kits gathering dust in evidence rooms in both Oklahoma City and Tulsa.

To some advocates for rape victims, this is an outrage, while others defend this as being perfectly appropriate.

Law enforcement policy on processing rape kits has been hotly debated in recent years, as several major metropolitan police departments have made headlines by deciding to go ahead and send all of their old, untested kits to the lab. The results have put pressure on other cities to follow suit, as these tests have led to the identification of serial rapists, the exoneration of some wrongly convicted, and justice for many rape victims. 

Read the full National Institute for Justice report.

"I'm 38 years old, and I feel like I've dealt with [this] and I've healed," said Tonia Byers. "But I still deal with it sometimes. I still have triggers that bring the memories back."

Byers was raped and molested from age nine to 13 by a family friend in the small Iowa town where she grew up. When the crime was eventually discovered, Tonia's family decided it would be best to simply keep the matter quiet.

It's a decision she now regrets.

"I wish my situation would have been different," lamented Byers, who moved to Oklahoma when she was in high school. "I wish I would have had the chance to have a rape kit done."

Many victims, both of stranger rape and acquaintance rape, will go through the unpleasant process of having a sexual assault kit (SAK), or rape kit, made. For some, this is a way to collect and preserve evidence of a crime. For many others, the kit is the by-product of a medical examination that a victim might, understandably, need or want after being assaulted.

Either way, Oklahoma law requires that the kits be turned over to local police for storage and possible processing.

How often are the kits actually processed?

In the past two years, Oklahoma City police told 9 Investigates they took in 615 rape kits. They tested 167 of them, just more than a quarter.

Byers, who spoke about her experience, in an effort to help others, said she feels that's not enough. She said it sends the wrong message to victims.

"It's letting them know that what you've gone through doesn't mean that much," exclaimed Byers.

Oklahoma City police said, on the contrary, sexual assault cases mean a lot, and if an investigator believes processing a rape kit will move a case forward, it gets tested, no questions asked.

"We investigate these sexual assaults to the fullest extent possible," stated Deputy Chief Johnny Kuhlman, "including exhausting all of our laboratory services."

But Kuhlman, who oversees the department's investigations, pointed out it just doesn't always make sense to process a rape kit.

Kuhlman and others cited instances where victims will complete a rape kit, but do not file a police report; or a victim may make a kit and file a police report, but then decide they don't want to prosecute and cease to cooperate; or, police said, they get a kit, but it's from an acquaintance rape, the question is over consent, not the assailant's identity.

"There are a lot of times where it's not necessary to test a kit,” explained Kuhlman.

That sentiment is not shared by some national advocacy groups.

"Every booked rape kit that is connected to a reported case is worthy of testing," said Sarah Tofte, with the Joyful Heart Foundation.

Learn more about the Joyful Heart Foundation's 'End the Backlog' program.

In fact, there is a growing national movement, led, in part, by the Joyful Heart Foundation, called ‘End the Backlog.' That movement encourages the testing of any and all kits connected to a reported rape. And it's happening in places like Cleveland, Detroit, and New York.

"And we've been able to see, from those cities hundreds of serial rapists identified, and dozens and dozens and dozens of cases moving through the system, and offenders brought to justice," noted Tofte.

At the Tulsa Police Department, they'd like to join those cities. 

"We're wholly on board with testing every kit," said Sgt. Mark Mears, a sex crimes detective.

Neither Tulsa nor Oklahoma City police feel that, technically, they have a 'backlog' of untested rape kits. In both departments, kits that investigators want tested get sent to the lab and results are returned, generally, in six to eight weeks. Kits not attached to cases being actively worked are not in the queue for testing.

Tulsa Police Department estimated it has about 3,400 untested rape kits. They said it would be too much of a burden for their own lab to process them all, which is why they're working with Joyful Heart Foundation to find funding to outsource the testing.

"Whether it's a stranger case or an acquaintance case, you'll find serial rapists by testing all of them," said Sgt. Mears.

Oklahoma City police are familiar with what these other cities are doing, but said testing all their old kits, even through outsourcing, is not something they're considering right now. They said locating, screening and preparing them all for a private lab would itself be a significant drain on manpower. They said they can't justify that when they're already devoting major resources to sexual assault cases.

"All the workable cases we have, where the victims want to prosecute, all those cases are being worked," insisted Chief Kuhlman.

Tonia Byers said she understands, but feels departments like Oklahoma City are losing a chance to get the DNA of known rapists into the national database, a move that could bring justice for past crimes, and perhaps prevent more in the future.

"Because, I'm sorry most sex offenders usually don't stop at one victim,” said Byers. 

Learn more about the crime from a victim's perspective.

Among local advocates for victims of sexual assault and rape (YWCA Oklahoma City and Oklahoma Coalition Against Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault), there is support, generally, for the idea of testing more rape kits. But they are not critical of the way Oklahoma City is currently handling the testing of rape kits.

Above all, local advocates said, it is absolutely essential that if a decision is made to process old rape kits, the victims in those cases be contacted and consulted first, as some may not want their kits processed. 

Read the National Institute for Justice's overview of the issue.