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The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases

The above-titled National Institute of Justice special report by Nancy Ritter confronts the dilemma of untested sexual assault kits (SAKs).  The issue has garnered increasing attention lately, as police departments around the country report their discoveries of tens of thousands of untested SAKs, including Los Angeles (10,000), Dallas (12,000), and Detroit (10,500).

The entire report can be viewed from the NIJ's website, but here are a few of the interesting issues discussed.

  • Outsourcing - Some law enforcement agencies, including Los Angeles, opt to outsource some testing to private labs because of backlogs and staffing difficulties.  While alleviating some pressure on public labs, outsourcing presents additional costs and burdens.  Public labs must conduct a technical or "peer" review of analyses performed in private labs, which has led to what some refer to as a "new backlog."  Also, under the Supreme Court's decision in Melendez-Diaz v. Massachusetts, jurisdictions must pay for private lab scientists to testify in court in criminal cases if the testing is outsourced.      

  • Victim Notification - Most agree that victims deserve to know if and when their untested SAKs are discovered, tested, or matched to a suspect, but the best procedure is debated.  One city mails an official-looking letter asking the victim to call regarding an unspecified matter.  Another city composes a team of four, including a victim advocate and former detective, to conduct in-person notifications.  In any event, the situation must be handled delicately.  Some victims may find peace upon learning their attacker from 20 years ago has been identified, but others may have moved on completely and are unwilling to revisit the crime. 

  • Statute of Limitations - The statutes of limitation for sexual assault charges have changed over the years, including recent changes in some jurisdictions that stop the clock if a DNA profile is obtained from the SAK.  But what about the thousands of untested SAKs that are discovered where the statute of limitations has clearly expired?  Testing of these SAKs may initially appear to be of lower priority, but victims' advocates argue testing may link the attacker to other unsolved crimes and provide closure to victims.

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