EARLIER this year, the General Assembly passed a law requiring that by July 1, 2020, the Department of Forensic Science will assign each rape kit issued in Virginia with a unique electronic identification number. The ID number will enable the kit to be tracked every step of the way—from the date it is sent to a health care provider, to the collection of physical evidence from a rape victim, to the date it is destroyed, hopefully after a criminal trial that sends the rapist to prison for many years.
The ID numbers will only be available to medical providers, law enforcement agencies, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, forensic lab employees, prosecutors and victims of sexual assault themselves. To preserve victims’ privacy, the “records entered into the physical evidence recovery kit tracking system are confidential and are not subject to disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act,” according to the legislation, which was signed by Gov. Ralph Northam.
The commonwealth’s first real-time tracking system of physical evidence in rape cases was a long time coming. It was created in response to a shocking backlog in which hundreds of kits sat—untested—in dusty police evidence rooms for years.
In March, Attorney General Mark Herring announced the results from 1,770 kits that were collected before 2014 but not initially tested, including six from Caroline County, 11 from Culpeper County, nine from Fredericksburg, one from King George County, six from Orange County, 31 from Spotsylvania County, 31 from Stafford County and two from the University of Mary Washington. As of March 21, a total of 568 DNA profiles were uploaded to the national Combined DNA Index System. There were 239 “hits” sent to law enforcement for further investigation, 144 of which confirmed the identity of a previously known suspect.
The backlog testing was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which reported that tens of thousands of previously ignored rape kits nationwide have been tested since 2015. To prevent future backlogs in Virginia, a 2016 law sponsored by former state Sen. Dick Black, R–Leesburg, and passed by the General Assembly requires that all rape kits now be tested within 60 days.
Although progress has been made, it never should have taken this long. And there are still obstacles to bringing the perpetrators of this horrendous and violent crime to justice.
One obstacle is do-it-yourself rape kits, which are self-administered. Herring warns that they “could actually be harmful or counterproductive for a survivor,” since they lack the important chain of custody that is required in court proceedings, and may discourage victims from reporting the crime to law enforcement and seeking appropriate medical and psychological care.
Another obstacle is victims’ continuing reluctance to tell authorities that they have been raped, a crime that experts say too often goes unreported for a variety of reasons, even in this #MeToo era. However, by not reporting sexual assault when it happens, victims all but guarantee that their rapists will remain free to prey on other victims. Rape kits that match or add DNA samples to a list of sex offenders are a great law enforcement tool that can be used to catch and punish these criminals, but only if they are used according to protocol.
And the first step in that process is reporting the crime.