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Assemblywoman Targets Rape Kit Backlog in Alameda County

Assemblymember Nancy Skinner. Photo credit: Nancy Skinner
Assemblymember Nancy Skinner. Photo credit: Nancy Skinner
by Bay City News

State Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, announced new legislation in Oakland this morning that would address the backlog of rape kits sitting untested on police evidence shelves in Alameda County and statewide.   At a news conference this morning at the state building on Clay Street in downtown Oakland, Skinner called the backlog "a second assault" on victims. She pointed out that the victims have to undergo an invasive physical exam following an attack, and that it is unacceptable that the evidence then "languishes" on a shelf.  

To expedite testing, Skinner has written Assembly Bill 1517 with state Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland, and other legislators. The bill sets time limits for law enforcement agencies and forensics labs to process evidence collected from victims after sexual assaults.   The bill stipulates that sexual assault forensic evidence must be sent to a crime lab within five days after it is booked into evidence by a law enforcement agency.   The crime lab would then have to process the evidence and upload DNA profiles to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, within 30 days.    Bonta called the backlog "an affront to our justice system" that allows perpetrators of sex assaults to remain on the streets.   Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley is already working with local law enforcement agencies to ensure that proper and timely testing occurs after a rape.   "We need to change police culture," she said.  

She said many police departments train their officers to prioritize rape kits when the suspect is unknown.   However, O'Malley said it is also important to process rape kits in cases where a suspect has been identified, because often a suspect in one case can be linked to other cases through DNA evidence -- especially since many sex offenders tend to be repeat criminals.   

Sandra Henriquez, executive director of the California Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the collection of evidence from victims should not be done in vain.   "Hopefully (the bill) prevents crime in the future," she said.   Heather Marlowe, a sexual assault survivor who spoke at today's news conference, said her rape kit took more than two years to be processed.   She said she was drugged and raped at the Bay to Breakers race in San Francisco in 2010. After a year, she hadn't heard back from police about the DNA from her case, even after a suspect had been identified.   Marlowe, an actor and playwright, later wrote a play about the long wait.   "I felt absolutely powerless," she said.   Eventually, her kit was tested after two years, she said.   She has since gone before the San Francisco Police Commission and requested an audit of her case to examine how it was handled.  

O'Malley has partnered with county law enforcement agencies since June 2011 to keep track of how many untested rape kits their evidence rooms contained, according to the district attorney's office.   An initial audit turned up more than 1,900 untested rape kits in Alameda County alone, O'Malley said.   She said that now, by keeping tabs on the rape kits, "we are eliminating the backlog."   The Natasha Justice Project, a New York-based nonprofit that works with sexual assault survivors, has teamed up with the district attorney's office to provide funding to test those nearly 2,000 rape kits, O'Malley said.
Jack Lyness January 24, 2014 at 02:33 AM
I'm curious what happens if/when these time limits are not met. Does the evidence get thrown out? No one who cares about this issue would want to see this happen, but I hope someone vets this bill carefully. I seriously would like to see the Patch follow up on this to find out the answer to what happens if the processing deadline were to expire.
Jennifer Snyder January 25, 2014 at 01:53 PM
I am an attorney. Civil, not criminal, but here is what I think would happen: The evidence would definitely not get thrown out. This is a state legislative bill brought with the intention of protecting victims, not rapist. To throw out evidence would be contrary to the purpose and actually function as a protection for rapist. This bill would set out an administrative deadline to process evidence. I would imagine, as with most laws, there will be an enforcement or enabling clause contained in the bill that will set out enforcement guidelines. And that process would be followed to prevent another backlog. But for sure, the evidence would not be thrown out or rendered inadmissible because of a failure to meet an administrative deadline. That would be a violation of Equal Protection and Due Process Constitutional protections - I think.

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