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August 10, 2010

The Dangerous Rise in Untested Rape Kits

If you think being raped is your worst nightmare, read what happens next. Women across the country are waiting years, even decades, for their rape kits to be tested.

Join Human Rights Watch in a campaign to pass an act that will require all states to test and track rape kits. Click here to send a letter to Congress.

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Rape Kit Backlog report researched by Human Rights Watch in Los Angeles.

Photo Credit: Patricia Williams

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He materialized in the dark. One minute she was alone, feeding quarters into a coin machine at a deserted, self-service car wash just blocks from her home, the next minute he was beside her, his face buried in a wadded rag. "I was in a fight," came the muffled plea. "Can you drive me to the hospital?"

Helena Lazaro, a cherubic teen standing just over 5 feet tall, took in his flannel shirt and black jeans — around 30, she thought, maybe a trucker. His sandy hair was cut in a redneck's mullet and, oddly, she would notice, in one of his eyes there glistened a drop of blood.

"Oh, sure," she said, fighting panic, thinking she would just try to scoot into her car and shoot away.

But suddenly he was behind her, holding a knife to her throat, and the rape of Helena Lazaro began.

For more than 13 years, her ordeal, in a sketchy outlying area of Los Angeles, remained not only unsolved but also largely uninvestigated — one of America's hundreds of thousands of scandalously backlogged rape cases awaiting forensic analysis. A predator was on the loose and the authorities seemed indifferent, unwilling, or unable to use modern tools familiar even to the casual viewer of CSI.

But last December, Lazaro got surprising news. Long thought lost or destroyed, her rape kit — hospital swabs of semen and saliva, along with hair, nail clippings, and other potential evidence of a sexual assault — had yielded a DNA profile that matched a suspect: a 45-year-old long-haul trucker, who was in prison. Roughly 13 years after her attack, Lazaro's rape kit had finally been tested.

That was the good news.

The bad news, which can now be pieced together, was that after sexually assaulting Lazaro in 1996, the man had gone on to rape his wife at knifepoint in Indiana — as well as an Ohio woman under strikingly similar circumstances to Lazaro's. Following the attack on his wife, his unique genetic profile had been entered into the national database known as CODIS, the Combined DNA Index System, that was online by the late 1990s and now contains more than 7 million offender profiles. But because Lazaro's rape kit was never tested, no match was made a tragic error in a chaotic, inefficient system that would lead to at least one more rape.

"We can prevent rapes of women," says Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York congresswoman pressing for more resources for DNA testing. "We have the science. We just need the will."

In the Lazaro case, the shocking conclusion was that had it not been for sloppiness, human error, systemic failure, or a combination of the three (a sequence being repeated across the country), the Ohio rape in 1998 could have been prevented. And it took the authorities more than three years after the rapist's third assault to make the forensic connection and arrest him. Linking that crime back to Lazaro's would take another eight years.

Were other women around the country victimized by the same predator in the interim? "I wouldn't put anything past him," says the Indiana sheriff's deputy who arrested the man for raping his wife. The arresting officer in the Ohio rape agrees. "I don't doubt it," says Detective Michelle Brettin of the Fairfield Police. "But will we ever find them?"

The 13-year delay in acting on Lazaro's rape and the tragic consequences it had for at least one other victim dramatize, as few other cases do, the perils of a dysfunctional system that, despite the great leaps in forensic science, has long treated sexual crimes with degrees of ambiguity, suspicion, and hostility, often shaming the victims in the process.

"Most rapes are perpetrated by serial rapists," says Dr. David Lisak, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts who studies the subject. The average rapist, he says, attacks multiple victims: One study suggested seven, another 11.

"For one woman to be believed, someone else has to be raped," says Kaethe Morris Hoffer, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a leading support group for rape survivors.

For almost a decade, the backlog in testing and processing rape kits has been a national disgrace, fueling outrage among rape survivors and women's-rights groups and prompting remedial efforts in Congress and the states. Law enforcement has had the science to match the DNA of victims to perpetrators since 1989. The realities of crime-fighting, of course, are complex. In 2007 there were 248,200 rapes and sexual assaults, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Demands for DNA testing, a shortage of technologists, limited budgets, and the roughly $1,500 cost of collecting and processing each rape kit conspired to create the backlog over many years.

None of which quite explains why hundreds of thousands of rape kits — including Helena Lazaro's — were among the forensic evidence from 542,000 criminal cases that the National Institute of Justice found lying unprocessed in police storage lockers and labs around the country as of 2003. Since then, efforts to cut the backlog have borne some fruit, but Congress estimates that more than 180,000 rape kits remain untested nationwide.

Meanwhile, a new National Institute of Justice report released in June cautioned that signs of progress were deceptive. More cases were being processed, but backlogs were rising because of the fast-growing demand for DNA testing.

"What other crimes would be disregarded like this?" asks Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center, the nation's oldest rape clinic, serving some 1,000 new victims a year. "How could you close a case and never open the evidence?"

"Most victims," she adds, "have no idea their kits are not being opened."


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