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August 10, 2010

The Dangerous Rise in Untested Rape Kits

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

Photo Credit: Patricia Williams

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The night of August 5,1996, had started off well for Helena Lazaro, the eldest daughter of an Argentine X-ray repairman and a nurse who had fled Castro's Cuba. Helena attended Catholic schools until, she says, "I rebelled," transferred to Downey High, and adopted a nose ring and a tattoo. She had a sweet, round face, curly brown hair, and green eyes flecked with rust. She wrote poetry and wanted to become a writer. But that summer before her senior year, she was working the carnival games at Knott's Berry Farm.

Earlier in the evening she had gone on a blind date in Santa Monica with a cute software programmer she had met online. "I like nerdy guys," says Lazaro. She was wearing a navy-blue turtleneck and a floor-length floral skirt she had gotten for her 17th birthday six days before. After dinner she'd left in her cherished new white-over-black Rabbit convertible, another birthday gift, and decided, blocks from home, to wash it yet again.

The car wash in a strip mall on Telegraph Road was deserted when she pulled in after dark. She was getting the hose when he suddenly appeared, faceless, the rag shrouding his features, startling her with his plea for help.

"Immediately the bells went off," Lazaro recalls. "Oh, sure," she said, feigning calm. "Let me put my mats in the car."

She started to dart into the driver's seat, planning a quick getaway. But he met her at the door and slid into the backseat behind her, an arm around her neck and a knife at her throat. "Be calm," he warned. "Don't say anything."

He directed her to drive out of the car wash into the maze of dark suburban streets where he slipped into the seat beside her. They passed a liquor market with a police car outside. She thought of leaping the curb and staging a crash. As if reading her mind, he pressed the knife sharply against her and she drove on.

She begged him not to hurt her. He told her to take down her hair. Then he said words that chilled her. "You can't tell anybody what's going to happen."

She cried that she had a boyfriend, that she had been raped before — anything she could think of. He reached down and began fondling her, one minute telling her how pretty she was, then calling her ugly and threatening to disfigure her.

She noticed the blood in his eye and tried to convince him to go to a hospital. Instead, he directed her into a depot of parked trailer trucks. In a darkened bay, he told her to get out of the car and take off her clothes. She said she was wearing a tampon. He told her to remove it. He made her fellate him, and then pulled her down on his lap and assaulted her again. Then he draped her naked over the hood of the car and attacked her yet again.

Back in the car he demanded her cash and driver's license. Then, relenting, he returned $20, saying, "I don't want to take all your money." He began talking about his wife, how furious he was with her.

"I tried to get him to confide in me, see me as a person," Lazaro recalls.

He forced oral sex from her repeatedly, each time apologizing, "I'm sorry, I won't make you do that again." Then he directed her to drive to some railroad tracks. "We sat there for the longest time," she remembers. "That's where I think he was planning to kill me."

With no train coming, he ordered her to drive again, this time to a freeway underpass near a shoddy motel where he threatened her again into silence, saying he would know if she reported him. "I have a police scanner," he said. "I'll kill your family." He had her driver's license, so she had every reason to believe him.

Then a prostitute trolling for clients near the motel spotted them and ambled over, knocking on the car window and asking, "Hey, you guys want to party?"

Lazaro struggled to signal her terror. "I tried to motion with my eyes," she recalls, to no avail. The woman wandered off.

But Lazaro's attacker wasn't through. "That bitch made me horny," he said, compelling oral sex yet again. Then he slipped out of the car, stepped into the shadows, and disappeared.

A federal survey last year painted a sorry picture of the state of scientific awareness among the nation's crime-fighters. The report, prepared for the National Institute of Justice, found that of 150,070 unsolved rapes over the past five years, 27,595 (or more than 18 percent) produced forensic evidence that was never sent to a lab. What's more, nearly half of the police agencies surveyed said they were under the impression that they were not to submit such evidence without an identified suspect — the very purpose of seeking DNA matches. Astonishingly, the report noted, "Some law enforcement agencies are still not fully aware that forensic evidence can be used as an investigative tool and not just during the prosecution phase."

After years of scattered newspaper exposés around the country, Human Rights Watch (HRW) threw a powerful spotlight on the backlog problem last year with a report, "Testing Justice," that documented shocking negligence in Los Angeles City and County.

Pressing the L.A. Police Department and Sheriff's Department to search their storage spaces and crime labs, HRW found a staggering backlog of 12,669 untested rape kits. Other cities were equally bad or worse. As far back as 2002, the scandal-plagued Houston crime lab was found to have run up a backlog of 19,500 untested rape kits, at which point a new lab director, Irma Rios, was promptly appointed. Rios subsequently began a series of reforms, including the use of robotic testers, that has cut the number to 4,000, with the goal of processing the remainder within a year. In Detroit, some 10,500 rape kits, unopened and untested and dating back to the mid-'90s, were discovered at the discredited crime lab there, with thousands more in surrounding Wayne County.

But that's not all. Police in Denver and other cities around the country threw out biological evidence for nearly 6,000 murder and rape cases, deeming them unactionable or outdated, although such evidence might have proved vital in making arrests. And now Illinois is the latest target of HRW, which found that of 7,974 rape kits booked into police storage from 1995 to 2009, only 20 percent could be confirmed as having been tested (this after disgraced Governor Rod Blagojevich falsely pronounced the state backlog-free in 2005). But there's really no fathoming the debacle, says Sara Tofte, HRW's researcher and author of the report, since of the 264 Illinois law-enforcement agencies queried for information, only one-third responded with complete data. What's more, an Illinois audit in 2009 found that $6 million in state funds allocated for forensics went elsewhere, with Jonathon Monken, the director of the state police, claiming this happened under Blagojevich's orders. In a stunning move in July, current Illinois Governor Pat Quinn signed the Sexual Assault Evidence Submission Act, the first law in the nation requiring the police to test all rape kits within 10 days of their collection.

So problems can be fixed. In 1999, when the New York Police Department discovered nearly 17,000 untested rape kits, New York City's then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and his police commissioner, Howard Safir, contracted with three outside labs that by 2003 had eliminated the backlog. And in 2007, the city opened a $290 million Forensic Biology Laboratory at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner that performs more DNA testing than any lab in the country, including the FBI's. By promptly testing every rape kit, New York has achieved a 70 percent arrest rate, three times the national average.

"New York is the best in the country," says HRW's Tofte. If there's any problem, she adds, it's that the city is setting too high a bar for others. "They're so good, it almost looks unattainable."

Simply throwing money at the problem has not proved successful. Over the years, the Justice Department has provided in excess of $330 million to help labs reduce backlogs, but the funds were often squandered, says Representative Carolyn Maloney, the New York Democrat. To help stop this, Maloney's sponsoring a remedial bill that would compensate localities according to their success rates. "As they decrease their backlog by 1 percent, they get 1 percent more funding," she says. "DNA never forgets. It can't be intimidated. It convicts — and exonerates."

Congress has heeded the outcry as well. In 2004 it passed the Debbie Smith Act, which provides funding for DNA testing. The act is named for a 36-year-old Virginia woman who was raped in 1989. Her rape kit went untested for six years, when it was finally processed and matched to her attacker — in prison for a separate offense.

Suddenly alone after her attacker fled, Lazaro drove off in shock. She couldn't go home, she thought foggily. She was afraid to call the police. What if he was listening to a scanner as he had threatened? Then she began screaming.

But when she spotted a parked police cruiser, she pulled over. "I need help," she blurted. "I've just been raped."

At Whittier Hospital Medical Center, she endured a painful rectal exam and the rape-kit swabs. When a counselor tried to comfort her, saying, "It's not your fault," Lazaro erupted. "Of course it's not!"

They couldn't reach her parents. Finally, by sunup, her father arrived. His first words, Lazaro remembers, were: "This is really expensive. We need to get out of here."

The police wanted her to help them make a sketch of the suspect. But Lazaro, still terrified, refused. He had her driver's license, after all, and could easily trace her.

Too terrified to leave the house, she called the police every few weeks. They had no news.


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