Too much evidence locked away in untested rape kits

An evidence bag from a sexual assault case awaits testing at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Texas.
An evidence bag from a sexual assault case awaits testing at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Texas. The Associated Press file, April

In 2003, a masked man raped a teenage girl at knifepoint in her suburban Memphis, Tennessee, home.

DNA evidence was collected in a “rape kit” — and then stored away. Nine years later, the victim heard about several rapes in the community and thought the same man might be responsible.

The young woman was shocked to learn that her rape kit had never been tested. When it was, it led to Anthony Alliano, whose DNA was taken after he was arrested in another rape.

He was convicted for raping seven women and girls, and sentenced to 178 years in prison.

Alliano could be the poster boy for the importance of rape-kit testing — if it were not for the fact that his case is all too common. In Washington state, and across the nation, hundreds of thousands of rape kits sit untested in storage and sometimes are even destroyed when space runs low. DNA clues that could apprehend rapists go unlocked — and men who could be taken off the streets are free to continue attacking and even killing victims.

Advocates for sexual assault victims cite a lack of will on the part of some authorities to aggressively pursue rape claims because they may believe them to be concocted or because they involve prostitutes. But the more likely impediment to routine testing is its cost, estimated at $500 to $1,500 per kit.

In times past, that testing might not have paid off with many arrests and convictions. But today, DNA samples are being taken from a growing number of criminals and entered into state and national databases. Chances of getting a “hit” with matching DNA taken from a rape kit is improving.

In this state, a new law that went into effect in April will require police departments to request that the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory test each new rape kit collected since July if the victim consents to an investigation. But it doesn’t require testing on kits collected earlier — about 6,000 by one estimate.

The new law also created a task force to look into funding options and ways to reduce the volume of untested kits. It’s scheduled to report its findings to the Legislature by Dec. 1.

One recommendation should be to pursue federal funding, which could become more available depending on Congress. President Obama’s proposed 2016 budget allocates $41 million to help reduce the testing backlog on top of the $41 million that was in this year’s budget.

In cities where there’s been momentum to process the kits, the results have been startling. Cleveland has indicted more than 300 rape suspects since 2013 based on testing old kits; eventually 1,000 are expected to be charged. Houston turned up 850 matches in a national DNA database after it cleared a backlog of nearly 6,700 kits.

If those kinds of numbers are any indication, hundreds of rapists are walking free in Washington state right now who otherwise could be identified by evidence languishing in evidence lockers.

We hope the new state law and the growing push for testing the old rape kits have them sweating.