New Funding to Combat Rape Kit Backlog Just a Stepping Stone, Not a Solution

ME.Rape.0605.CC; The kit used to test victims of sexual assault at UCLA Hospital in Santa Monica where Gail Abarbanel is the
ME.Rape.0605.CC; The kit used to test victims of sexual assault at UCLA Hospital in Santa Monica where Gail Abarbanel is the director of the Rape Treatment center. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

After it was over, she wanted a shower. She wanted to wash the filth and the horror away, wanted to erase what had just been done to her. The only thing she wanted more than the shower? Justice.

So instead of huddling in the shower, scalding water washing away the evidence that could bring her rapist to justice, she went to the hospital and endured a rape kit to help law enforcement find and prosecute the man who raped her. She wanted him behind bars, unable to hurt anyone else the way he hurt her.

That rape kit -- the one that would bring her justice and perhaps save other women from victimization -- would sit untested for nearly a decade.

In a jail cell across the country, a man sits, wondering desperately how he could end up accused of such a horrible crime. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time, picked up near the scene of a rape, and identified by a traumatized witness who admittedly couldn't see her attacker well in the dark. But he didn't do it. He would never do something like that. Shouldn't DNA evidence prove his innocence?

But the rape kit that would exonerate him, that would set him free, sits untested.

Recently, the United States Justice Department and the Manhattan District Attorney's Office pledged a combined $79 million to combat the rape kit backlog at some 43 law enforcement agencies in 27 states across the country.

That is good news for rape survivors and good news for those falsely accused of rape -- DNA evidence could finally bring justice. But overshadowing the good news regarding the rape kit funding is the staggering reality of the rape kit backlog.

Most people would assume that a rape kit is immediately tested as a matter of course. A woman is raped, she goes to a hospital for a rape kit, the kit is tested, and DNA evidence finds her rapist and brings him to justice.

Instead, getting that kit tested seems to be more of a rarity than a matter of fact. Reports say that there are more than 70,000 untested rape kits warehoused by 1,000 law enforcement agencies across the United States.

But those 70,000 untested kits are likely just the tip of the iceberg. After all, there are more than 18,000 local police departments across the nation. Extrapolated at that rate, there could be more than 1.2 million untested rape kits in evidence rooms around the nation.

It is inconceivable.

Imagine if there was a room at your local police department that contained video evidence of every crime committed in your area -- video in which you could clearly see the perpetrator's face, in which viewing the video would give no doubt as to who was responsible for the crime. Think how quickly justice would prevail.

Now imagine that whoever was in charge of holding the keys to the room accidentally misplaced them, and it was just too expensive or inconvenient to hire a locksmith to gain access to the room. In these tens of thousands -- potentially hundreds of thousands -- of untested rape kits around the country lies justice. But it remains locked away.

Let's go back to our woman in the first example. Already victimized, she decides to take a stand. She does the "right" thing by going to her local hospital to get a rape kit. If that kit had been tested in a timely manner, her rapist could have been off the street. She could feel safer knowing that he is behind bars.

Keep in mind how much more quickly the wheels of justice turn when there is credible evidence to support the prosecution. When I defend someone charged with rape, it is usually a helluva lot easier to resolve the case if there is a rape kit containing my client's DNA. It expedites the closure for the victim, and it helps me protect my client from risking a harsh sentence from a jury. If there is no rape kit, it increases the likelihood that the alleged victim will have to take the stand and have his or her motives, honesty and integrity challenged.

On the flip side, these untested kits could also be used to exonerate those who are being held for crimes they didn't commit. A rape charge is one of the most serious allegations a person can face. Innocent unless proven guilty? The system often tend to ignore that premise in sex crimes cases. Bond for a rape suspect may be incredibly high. If released, the defendant may be subject to GPS monitoring.

With the untested rape kits, there are actual victims on both sides of the allegations who are being deprived of evidence that could help close up their cases quickly.

While the grants from the Manhattan D.A. and the Justice Department should clear some of the backlog, unless we find the reasons why agencies aren't testing these kits and adopt measures to ensure that protocols for quick and reliable testing exist, the problem is likely to continue.

The cause of the backlog must be addressed. Awareness of the issue is a start, but it is time to seriously question the systems which allowed the backlog in the first place. How long have these kits sat ignored in storage? How many rape kits are "lost" (like the more than 10,000 untested rape kits discovered neglected in a Detroit warehouse)?

Innocents without defense.

Victims without justice.

Public safety at risk.

It is a travesty. Let's look at these funds to end the rape kit backlog as a stepping stone, not a solution. Let's not call it "good enough" until justice is finally and truly served.