The Honolulu Police Department says that by the end of November it will clear a backlog of nearly 1,400 sexual assault evidence kits, some dating back more than two decades, and will send out all of about 200 more recent kits in the department’s possession for testing by the end of the year.
A legislative audit led by the state Attorney General’s Office last year revealed the extent of the backlogs at Hawaii’s police departments, where DNA evidence collected from sexual assaults has languished on shelves for years, mirroring a national problem.
The Honolulu Police Department reported the largest backlog: 1,375 untested kits as of June 30, 2016. The data show HPD had been testing on average fewer than six rape kits a year since 1992, or 9 percent of kits collected. Of the 1,512 kits HPD collected, 137 were tested over the 25-year period.
The kits contain swabs of bodily fluid, hair, clothing and other potential sources of DNA evidence collected in the hours or days after an alleged assault as part of a voluntary forensic examination that can last several hours. Having a kit tested requires a laboratory analysis to determine whether a DNA profile is present in the samples.
|BY THE NUMBERS
No. of untested and tested sexual assault kits
+categories: police department, untested kits as of 6/30/16, backlog kits tested as of 09/30/17+
Honolulu Police Department | 1,375 | 832
Hawaii Police Department | 290 | 107
Maui Police Department | 151 | 86
Kauai Police Department | 135 | 131
Source: Hawaii Attorney General, Hawaii Sexual Assault Kit Initiative
There’s been a national push in recent years to process untested rape kits and to upload usable information to the FBI’s national offender database known as the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS. The backlogs here sparked intense criticism from lawmakers and victim advocacy groups who argued that the untested kits may contain DNA evidence that could help strengthen prosecutions, identify serial rapists, link crimes together, and in some cases exonerate the wrongfully accused.
Under questioning by lawmakers last year, HPD officials gave various reasons for the accumulation of untested kits, including a lack of funding to test them and a general practice of not testing kits when a perpetrator is already known, when the suspect admits to having had sex with the victim, or when an alleged victim withdraws the complaint.
Honolulu Police Assistant Chief Richard Robinson, who heads HPD’s Criminal Investigation Division, which handles sex-assault cases, said the mindset at the department has shifted.
“This is the change in thinking, where before we thought, ‘This DNA is about this particular case.’ We didn’t think, ‘This DNA is about connecting to other cases’ or getting the DNA profile out there so it can potentially match to other cases,” Robinson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “So we looked at it basically as, ‘Does this evidence help our case?’ If it didn’t, we didn’t test it. … The current mindset is: ‘DNA helps your case and helps other cases.’”
He added that HPD “generally almost always” tested kits for assaults where the perpetrator was unknown, also known as a stranger rape.
“The vast majority of sex assaults in Hawaii and across the country are usually committed by someone the person knows,” Robinson said. “A stranger sex assault is statistically pretty rare.”
In the 11 months since the attorney general’s audit report, HPD has been submitting hundreds of untested kits for processing by mainland laboratories. As of Sept. 30, the department had sent out 832 of its 1,375 backlogged kits for testing.
Robinson said the remaining kits will be sent out this month, and approximately 200 kits that have been collected since June 2016 will be submitted for testing by year’s end.
State Sen. Laura Thielen, co-convener of the Women’s Legislative Caucus, helped lead efforts to have rape kits tested. She said lawmakers will continue pressing the issue.
“The testing is not the end of the story. It’s really an ability to give some hard evidence to allow police to pursue cases,” Thielen (D, Hawaii Kai-Waimanalo-Kailua) said in an interview.
In some other jurisdictions, the failure to pursue chronic offenders allowed them “to commit additional sex assaults that could have been prevented,” she said. “What we’d like to see is aggressive pursuit of cases, because the ultimate goal is we want to eliminate sexual assault, we want to get chronic or serial predators off of the streets, and we want to protect people from … having to go through such horrific experiences in the future.”
Early database hits
Some of the early kit results have yielded matches in the FBI’s offender database.
Investigators have matched “between one and two dozen” DNA profiles obtained from the more than 800 kits submitted for testing so far this year with potential perpetrators in the CODIS database, according to HPD spokeswoman Michelle Yu.
The database contains DNA samples taken from convicted offenders and arrestees as well as forensic profiles from DNA obtained from crime scenes. In order for a profile to be loaded into CODIS, there has to be probable cause that a crime occurred and the sample has to meet certain scientific benchmarks.
“Investigators are currently reviewing the cases with matches to determine which matches have evidentiary value,” Yu said in an email.
Robinson, the HPD assistant chief, cautioned against drawing conclusions about CODIS hits at this stage.
“It could be identifying a suspect we already know, like a date-rape situation, where we already know who the suspect is,” he said, but acknowledged that matches could link a suspect to other crimes.
He said two sex-crimes detectives have been assigned to handle the DNA results from the backlogged kits. If there is an “actionable lead” in a case, HPD will contact the Sex Abuse Treatment Center, which will then contact the victim.
“That way the initial contact with the victim will be a lot more supportive than it would be if it was just a police detective calling you out of the blue,” Robinson said. “The victim has the choice of what the next moves are.”
The Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization that advocates for processing untested rape kits, said it was encouraged by HPD’s progress in reducing its backlog.
“It is our hope that all of the untested kits connected to a reported crime that have been found in police storage facilities across the state will eventually be tested, that these cases will be investigated, that survivors will be re-engaged in the criminal justice process, and that assailants can be brought to justice,” Maile Zambuto, Joyful Heart’s CEO, said in a statement. “Each untested kit represents a missed opportunity to bring justice and healing to a survivor and increased safety to a community.”