SHSU, UT-Austin researchers study issue of untested rape kits
A bill approved by the Texas Senate and pending in the House aims to address the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in law enforcement evidence storage rooms. Now, researchers at Sam Houston State University and the University of Texas at Austin are investigating why kits go untested, with the intent of establishing protocols for determining when kits need to be tested in the future.
“This is a problem-solving project that seeks to determine why so many kits are not being tested,” lead SHSU researcher William Wells said in a news release. “The goal is to create appropriate solutions that can be implemented and to determine if there are ways that forensic evidence in these kits can be used effectively.”
The research project is the first phase of a National Institute for Justice-funded study, focused on Houston law enforcement entities. The second phase of the NIJ study will focus on Wayne County (Detroit), Mich.
According to the news release from SHSU, about 4,000 untested rape kits are in the Houston Police Department’s Property Room. The NIJ study involves collaboration among SHSU, UT-Austin, HPD Crime Lab, HPD Juvenile Sex Crimes Unit, HPD Special Crimes Division, Harris County District Attorney’s Office and the Houston Area Women’s Center.
“Everybody is working cooperatively and collaboratively to figure out the problem and to find ways to correct it,” said Wells, who is an associate professor of criminal justice at SHSU. “We are all working toward a common goal: improving our nation’s responses to sexual assault.”
The Texas Department of Public Safety estimates there are about 22,000 untested kits just in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, according to the Legislative Budget Board’s fiscal note for Senate Bill 1636 by state Sen. Wendy Davis (D-Fort Worth). The LBB estimates a cost of nearly $24 million over the next biennium to implement the legislation, based on numbers from those three cities. Before passage by the Senate, Davis added a provision that the legislation would be implemented only to the extent that funding is available.
Davis’ bill implements guidelines for new rape kits to be submitted for analysis and tested, before testing begins for older rape kits (in active cases since 1996).
Large numbers of untested rape kits — containing biological or trace evidence in cases of sexual assault — are not uncommon in cities throughout the country. An NIJ article reported 10,000 untested kits in Los Angeles, 12,000 in Dallas and 10,500 in Detroit.
“These research projects will enable us to better understand what happens to sexual assault evidence, why it might not be analyzed, and what we need to do to fix the problem,” said NIJ Director John Laub in the news release. “When sexual assault kits go untested, it can result in significant and unnecessary delays in justice for sexual assault victims.”
Another NIJ report delineated various reasons given for why rape kits go untested, including doubt of “probative value,” charges against suspects being dropped, suspects pleading guilty or issues of consensual sex.
According to the news release:
The new study also is expected to address other related issues in the criminal justice system, including funding for testing and DNA investigations; protocols for issuing a warrant if a DNA sample is found but doesn’t match a CODIS profile; and additional caseloads for prosecutors and public defenders.
Among some of the questions that will be examined in the Phase I study are:
• Should all sexual assault kits be tested?
• Is a triage method more effective?
• How should victims be notified when the case is reopened after many years?
• What kind of training should law enforcement receive to make the best decisions about sending sexual assaults kits to the crime lab?
Earlier this year, Wells and colleagues released a study on a different criminal justice issue facing the Texas Legislature, concealed carrying of handguns on college campuses. Led by SHSU criminal justice professor Jeffrey Bouffard, the survey of SHSU students and counterparts at a Washington university showed more students were uncomfortable about having guns on campus than were comfortable with the idea, the Texas Independent previously reported.