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Pinal sex-assault DNA testing lags

The Arizona Republic,
BYLINE: Lindsey Collom and Caitlin McGlade
Link to Article

Pinal County, AZ

DNA evidence from more than 200 sexual-assault cases in Pinal County has been languishing in the Sheriff's Office property room, some for decades, a recent audit revealed.

An independent auditor found that only about 5 percent of sexual-assault kits, including DNA samples taken during forensic examinations of the victims, ever went to the state crime lab for testing.

The failure to process DNA is not so important to prosecuting the case where the samples come from but has a significant impact on police agencies' ability to solve other sex crimes and link cases.

Samples are added to state and national DNA databases, which makes crime solving easier, experts say.

California-based Evidence Control Systems Inc. cited the untested kits among the issues to be rectified by the Pinal County sheriff's evidence-and-property unit after decades of mismanagement.

"It's unclear why more sexual-assault kits and evidence are not being sent to the crime lab for analysis in hopes of identifying a perpetrator or linkage to other crimes," the audit said. "You may have a rape/sexual assault case with a named suspect who may never have been arrested. Could this person be a serial rapist? Could the DNA in that case match with others in the community?"

Sheriff's officials say 137 kits will now be sent to the Arizona Department of Public Safety's forensic lab. The department is also formulating a new policy that mandates tests of sexual-assault kits.

Untested kits are not exclusive to Pinal County.

An October 2009 study of more than 2,000 law-enforcement agencies by the National Institute of Justice found that evidence from 14 percent of all unsolved homicides and 18 percent of unsolved rape cases had not been submitted to crime labs.

"Not going forward with some of these (kits) if they can is a violation of women's rights, and everyone's rights - the community's, too, because that means the abuser is going to find another victim," said Heather Dumas, a legal advocate for Community Alliance Against Family Abuse in Apache Junction.

Earlier this year, the Department of Justice awarded grants to researchers in Houston and Wayne County, Mich., to study why such evidence is not tested and to develop practices to improve the criminal-justice response to sex assaults.

Generally, kits won't get processed because a suspect has been identified, the victim drops the case or investigators aren't aware of the technology, said Joe Latta, director of the auditing company.

"There is a nationwide lack of understanding," Latta said. "It's not a Pinal County issue, and it's not a Phoenix issue. . . . It's hard getting everyone trained when not everyone understands the science."

Just a decade ago, processing a kit was often useless if the officer didn't already have a suspect in mind because he or she would have no DNA on file to compare.

But with the expansion of the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, investigators could identify suspects by entering DNA records into the system.

Deputy Chief Harry Grizzle was a detective with the Pinal County Sheriff's Office in the late 1990s, when some of the untested kits were collected.

Back then, Grizzle said, investigators assumed that once they booked kits into the evidence unit, technicians would send them to the lab so "we never followed up."

Grizzle recently looked through each kit collecting dust in the evidence room and their corresponding case files. He found 137 kits that should be analyzed.

"My initial thought was we have some people out there that we can identify as suspects that we have not done," Grizzle said.

It would not be effective or practical to test every kit collected, said Todd Griffith, who oversees the DPS crime lab. The question should be how many kits are from cases where DNA would be valuable, he said.

"If you just go to a police agency and count out how many sex-assault kits are sitting there, you can come to a very large number," Griffith said. "What did the investigation show? That's the first step."

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