Many sexual assault crimes cannot be solved, and prosecutions cannot be commenced, without the help of experts. Some experts who testify as government witnesses in sexual assault cases work in state or municipal crime laboratories. Others work in private labs that provide services under contract with a state or municipal agency. One critical role that experts play is the analysis of evidence the police have gathered in a “rape kit.”
Sexual assault prosecutions around the country have stalled, and crimes have gone unsolved, because states and municipalities have not made funds available for experts to analyze the contents of rape kits. An editorialist recently observed that Kentucky is one of several states that suffers from “an inadequate state crime lab, a backlog of untested rape kits and a lack of money for prosecutors to pay for expert witnesses.”
Untested Rape Kits
A “rape kit” is a collection of evidence that is taken from the body of a sexual assault victim. It can include fingernail scrapings as well as swabs that gather semen, blood and other fluids from the victim’s body and clothing.
Ideally, the swabs are tested promptly and a DNA profile of the perpetrator is prepared. The profile can confirm or rule out the involvement of an identified suspect or, if the assailant is unknown to the victim, can be entered into a DNA database in search of a match.
Law enforcement agencies around the nation gathered hundreds of thousands of rape kits since the 1980s that they left untested. State and local crime labs that do not do their own DNA testing lacked funding to send the samples to private labs. Government agencies pay private labs as much as $1,000 per DNA test. In the midst of financial woes, many states and municipalities have made testing of rape evidence a low priority and have not been able to afford to pay private lab analysts to testify in court.
New Funding for Expert
In an attempt to resolve the problem of untested evidence, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office are making $79 million in grant money available to 40 cities. The funds are earmarked for the testing of rape kit evidence. Manhattan’s contribution is being paid from civil forfeiture proceeds collected in prosecutions of international banks.
The new funds are expected to enable experts to test about 70,000 rape kits. To assure that the funds are not misapplied, agencies will need to pay for the testing in advance. If they demonstrate that the money was spent appropriately, they will receive reimbursement from the grant.
The project includes an agreement with two private labs to reduce the cost of DNA testing. Law enforcement agencies that are eligible for the grant may be able to obtain testing for $675.
Prosecutors will also be able to use grant money to pay expert witnesses to testify. The budgetary savings that the grant money makes possible may also free up resources that can be used to pay lab analysts to testify in court.
Grant recipients include the City of Memphis, California’s Contra Costa County, and the Arkansas State Crime Lab. The funds are eventually expected to reach 43 government agencies.