(Los Angeles, October 20, 2008) -- The Los Angeles Police Department should make it a priority to reduce its huge backlog in testing evidence in rape cases, Human Rights Watch said today after release of an audit that shows the number of untested rape kits continues to grow despite nearly $4 million in federal grants the LAPD has received for that purpose.
"Why add to the suffering of rape victims by making them wait years to investigate and prosecute their cases -- or letting a prosecution go forward without this evidence?" said Sarah Tofte, a US Program researcher at Human Rights Watch who is researching the rape-kit backlog in Los Angeles and around the country. "The department needs to use its own budget and any future grants to make sure the job gets done."
Timely testing of rape kits can be critical to bringing justice to sexual assault victims. It is often difficult to solve or prosecute a rape case effectively without this forensic evidence. Furthermore, under California law, there is no statute of limitations for bringing a case if the rape kit is tested within two years. But if it is not tested in that time frame, the statute of limitations is 10 years.
"I want to thank Human Rights Watch for effectively pushing this issue into the forefront of the public arena," said Los Angeles City Controller Laura Chick. "Now the leadership of the City of Los Angeles must give this issue the focus, funding, and priority to end the backlog once and for all."
The audit says that the LAPD has not effectively used federal Forensic DNA Backlog Reduction Grant Program awards (also known as the Debbie Smith grant -- named after a rape victim whose case was affected by a backlog) over the past four years, to reduce its backlog of over 7,000 untested rape kits currently sitting in police storage.
The controller noted that as a penalty for "poor planning and oversight" of the grant awards, the federal government reduced the fiscal year 2008 grant to Los Angeles by more than half. The report also found that the LAPD has never made a formal budget request to the City Council to deal with the rape-kit backlog.
DNA technology is one of law enforcementís best forensic tools -- it can provide a match with an unknown suspect, confirm the identity of a known suspect, affirm the details of a victimís report, and exonerate innocent suspects. Under California law, the LAPD is required to notify victims if their rape kits remain unopened within two years of the crime. But according to Controller Chickís audit, the LAPD was unaware of the law and currently does not notify victims when their kits have not been tested.
Human Rights Watch urges the LAPD to adopt a comprehensive plan to eliminate the backlog, including by:
- Making testing of rape kits a priority, by dedicating future federal funds to reducing the backlog. Immediate action should be taken to test kits in cases in which the statute of limitations is soon to expire and those that are nearing the two-year threshold.
- Developing a three-year strategic plan to ensure prompt testing of every rape kit collected in the future. The plan should provide sufficient oversight to ensure effective use of grant funds.
- Establishing a system to monitor closely rape kit cases approaching the two-year threshold and 10-year statute of limitations, and to ensure that they are promptly tested.
- Developing a victim notification system to comply with the law and ensure that rape victims are informed if their kits remain untested after two years.