Keli Rabon is an investigative reporter with Call7News in Denver, Colorado. Her work to uncover rape kit backlogs in both Denver and Memphis has led to policy changes, and has earned Keli numerous awards. ENDTHEBACKLOG spoke with her.
As states across the country have opened their legislative sessions since the start of the new year, ENDTHEBACKLOG has been watching closely for rape kit reforms. Starting in 2010, the legislatures in Illinois, Texas and Colorado blazed the trail for mandating the testing of all rape kits booked into police evidence. Other states are beginning to follow their lead to varying degrees.
In the quest to catch violent perps, rape kits can be a key ally – but only if they're tested. Rape kit testing can identify serial rapists and unknown assailants as well as exonerate innocent suspects. The fact that so many DNA samples have sat on shelves in evidence rooms for years sends negative messages to victims and encourages culprits, says Sarah Tofte, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which presses for rape kit testing.
Most Americans with a general knowledge of our criminal justice system assume that rape kit evidence is sent for testing automatically after it is booked into police evidence. As DNA has played an increasingly important role in our criminal justice system, even laypeople grasp how vital DNA evidence is in resolving rape cases. Rape kit testing can identify an unknown assailant, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm a victim's version of events, discredit a suspect's story, identify serial rapists by connecting individual crime scenes, and exonerate innocent suspects. Rape kit testing sends a crucial message to victims that their cases matter. It puts assailants on notice that the criminal justice system takes their crimes seriously.
Last week in Aurora, Colorado, Police Chief Dan Oates announced that evidence from 48 different sexual assault cases was destroyed by mistake. The evidence, all from 2009 cases, had been destroyed during a six-month period beginning in January 2013.
In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder, Attorney General Bill Schuette and Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy announced the state will dedicate $4 million in legal settlement funds toward clearing the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits in Wayne County. The state legislature must now appropriate the funds through a special funding bill, which has already passed in the House of Representatives. In Colorado, Governor John Hickenlooper signed a bill making the state the third—following Illinois and Texas—to require the testing of all rape kits. Going forward, the newly passed legislation requires law enforcement agencies to submit rape kit evidence for testing within 21 days of receipt.
The Colorado House Judiciary Committee has taken a step toward eliminating the state’s rape kit backlog. The Committee unanimously passed a bill, HB 1020, that would require each law enforcement agency to inventory—within 60 days—and send for testing—within 90 days—the untested kits in its storage facilities.
Recently, there has been news of rape kit backlogs in two areas of the country: the greater Denver area in Colorado and the Phoenix metropolitan area in Arizona.