LA’s Untested Rape Kits Represent Lost Justice

Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday finding that Los Angeles County has at least 12,669 untested rape kits sitting in storage facilities. Sarah Tofte, a researcher for that study, calls it a case of major injustice to rape survivors.

Catherine, who lives with her young son in Los Angeles, was awakened at midnight by a stranger who raped her, sodomized her and forced her to orally copulate him–repeatedly. When it was over, the police brought her to a rape treatment center. As with all rape victims, her body was a crime scene. She consented to the collection of evidence.

The lab said it would take at least eight months for it to analyze the evidence gathered from Catherine’s body, known as a “rape kit.” For the detective, that was too long to wait. He personally drove the kit to the state lab, where it still sat for months.

When it was finally processed, it generated a “cold hit”–the DNA matched someone in the offender database, and Catherine’s rapist was identified. During the months Catherine’s kit sat on a shelf, unopened, the same rapist attacked at least two other victims; one was a child.

In this age of advanced DNA technology, and a heightened public understanding of how DNA testing can help solve crimes, one might assume Catherine’s story wouldn’t happen.

We know that testing a rape kit can identify a potential assailant, confirm a suspect’s contact with a victim, corroborate the victim’s account of the sexual assault and exonerate innocent defendants. National studies have shown that cases in which a rape kit was collected, tested and contained DNA evidence are more likely to move forward in the criminal justice system.

But today, Human Rights Watch, for which I work as a researcher, released a 68-page report that measures the scale of the neglect in Los Angeles.

Through dozens of interviews with police officers, public officials, DNA analysts, rape treatment providers and rape victims, I found that as of March 1, 2009, there were at least 12,669 untested rape kits sitting in storage facilities. In those cases, officers never sent the kits along for forensic testing.

Of these untested kits, at least 1,218 are from unsolved cases in which the attacker was a stranger to the victim. And 499 kits are attached to cases that have passed the 10-year statute of limitations for rape in California, making it impossible to prosecute the alleged assailants even if they were to be identified. Under California law, if those 499 kits had been opened within two years of the attack, the statute would no longer apply. Thousands more rape kits were destroyed untested.

The backlog grew even as the police and sheriff’s departments received millions of federal dollars from the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog Grant, a program the U.S. Congress created to address rape kit backlogs. But the effect of the program is blunted by the fact that grantees can use the money to test any kind of DNA backlog.

Los Angeles County has the largest known backlog in the United States.

These untested rape kits represent lost justice for the victims who reported their rape to the police, and consented in good faith to the four-to-six hour rape kit collection process.

What makes Catherine’s story unusual is that her rape kit was tested at all.

In New York City, rape survivors stand a much better chance.

New York eliminated its rape kit backlog in 2003 when city officials created a policy that every rape kit would be sent to the laboratory for DNA testing, and the lab built up its DNA testing capacity so that every rape kit would be tested within 60 days.

The lab also created a system in which every time a DNA profile from a rape kit matches a profile in the DNA database, the crime lab, prosecutor’s office and police department are simultaneously notified. To deal with the increase of investigative leads in rape cases because of the testing, the prosecutors and police created a special investigative team. The result has been an increase in arrest and prosecution rates.

Los Angeles officials need to move quickly and decisively to catch up and end its reputation, when it comes to prosecuting rape, as a judicial backwater.

Sarah Tofte is a researcher with the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch and the author of the new report, “Testing Justice: The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County.”

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Human Rights Watch called upon the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department to:

  • Enforce policy requiring every booked rape kit to be sent to the crime lab and tested;
  • Identify the crime lab resources necessary to test every booked rape kit – those currently in the backlog and those collected in the future – in a timely manner;
  • Identify the police department resources necessary to pursue the investigative leads generated from testing every booked rape kit;
  • Prioritize funding for the resources necessary to eliminate the rape kit backlog, test every future rape kit, and pursue investigative leads from rape kit testing;
  • Implement a system to inform sexual violence victims of the status of their rape kit test; and,
  • Preserve every booked rape kit until it is tested.

Human Rights Watch also called on the Mayor of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles City Council, and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to make funding for the testing of rape kits a priority in their 2009-2010 budgets.

Testing Justice
The Rape Kit Backlog in Los Angeles City and County
March 31, 2009

Table of Contents
I. Summary
II. Methodology
III. Recommendations
IV. Sexual Violence in Los Angeles County[4]
V. Untested Rape Kits in Crime Laboratories
VI. Untested Rape Kits in Police Storage
VII. Human Rights Law and Responses to Sexual Violence
VIII. Conclusions

The 68-page report reveals that the backlog of untested rape kits in Los Angeles County is larger and more widespread than previously reported. Through dozens of interviews with police officers, public officials, criminalists, rape treatment providers, and rape victims, the report documents the devastating effects of the backlog on victims of sexual abuse.

Read the Report online at

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  • Summary and recommendations – Photo feature (PDF, 779.88 KB)
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