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Justice delayed in rape cases

The Houston Chronicle,
Link to Article

Houston, TX

Many assault kits untested; little progress made at HPD lab after 5 years

Five years ago, when the troubled Houston Police Department crime lab resumed DNA testing, more than 4,000 sexual assault kits sat in a property room freezer awaiting testing.

Today, much of that evidence — some dating to the 1990s — is still awaiting processing.

So far, only 200 cases have been shaved off that backlog, according to lab officials who say the slow process is due to a lack of manpower.

Attorneys and policy makers say untested evidence in sexual assault cases has delayed justice for rape victims, many of whom have waited years for closure.

"I'm outraged on behalf of the sexual assault victims who have had a sexual assault committed and an invasive procedure, that being the rape kit, and then learn that no one has used it in an investigation, that it's in a storage room somewhere," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has spoken out on the issue for several years.

HPD crime lab director Irma Rios attributed the mass of untested rape kits to a lack of resources.

"It's a capacity issue," Rios said. "We need enough people to test what's incoming on a daily basis and now we have to look at the case of old kits."

In October, the crime lab began using a $1.1 million grant from the National Institute of Justice awarded to address the rape kit backlog. The grant allowed HPD to hire 10 additional staff members to be trained to test the evidence, Rios said.

"Our goal was to train them by the first quarter of this year, and we've already hired and trained them all," Rios said. "So we're within our goal."

The lab also plans to use the grant money to complete processing 2,300 of the untested kits in the property room, Rios said.

Sexual assault kits in which the case's statute of limitations is in danger of running out are given priority, Rios said. The roughly 200 cases which have been cleared are from 2001 and 2002, and testing of rape kits from 2003 is about to begin, she said.

Deadline for testing

According to Texas law, there is no statute of limitations for sexual assault, if DNA other than the victim's is found on the evidence. However, if DNA evidence is not established, then the statute of limitations in sexual assault cases is 10 years.

Rios could not say how many of the untested rape kits had hit the statute of limitations.

Testing for DNA in crime evidence, such as rape kits, is a two-part process. First, the presence of DNA must be established in the biological fluid sample. If DNA is detected, it is entered into an FBI database to see if it can be matched to a profile.

In addition to the untested evidence in the property room, the lab also has more than 1,000 new cases where DNA has been identified in the evidence, but that still need to be checked for profile matches, Rios said.

Criminal defense attorney Mark Hochglaube said that receiving any kind of test result from the HPD crime lab takes a long time, and he has seen it cause delays in many recent court proceedings.

"There is no proper course of action; you just have to sit and wait," he said. "It sucks to have a client sitting in jail telling you they're innocent and asking you when they're going to get their tests done and you don't have an answer."

2002 halt in testing

Hochglaube, who was a Harris County prosecutor for three years, recalled one of his cases where the court proceedings were delayed a number of times because the HPD crime lab took more than a year to test a rape kit.

"It created a huge issue because the DNA evidence didn't identify my client," he said.

Police officials temporarily halted DNA testing at HPD's crime lab in 2002 after an audit revealed the use of unqualified personnel, lax protocols and facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.

Since the forensic scandal came to light, some improvements have been made at the lab. Rios said there have been significant strides in reducing the the number of controlled substance and firearms cases.

The crime lab will also use an additional National Institute of Justice grant to research why rape kits are being stored in property rooms for so long and not being tested, Rios said.

Whitmire said he is shocked that city and police officials have not more aggressively dealt with the crime lab backlog.

"If the city says we don't have money, my answer to them is find the money," he said. "These are not buildings and potholes and swimming pools. These are human beings who have been assaulted, and they submitted to a … very uncomfortable test, and then they found out months later — years later — that it's never been used."

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