Pursuing Justice:

The State of the Sexual Assault Kit Backlog in the United States

Tara Luther, Promega

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Assistant Prosecuting Attorney of the Genesee County Prosecutor’s Office, Jen Janetsky, took the stage at ISHI 29 and asked a question, “Anybody heard of Flint, Michigan lately?” She began her presentation by describing a time when Flint was a prosperous city, booming due to the nearby GM plant. That all changed in the 1980’s when the decision was made to close the Fisher One Body Plant and 80,000 jobs were lost. Those who could leave did, and those who stayed faced the reality of living in a city that had lost half of it’s tax base.

200 sworn officers turned into 88, and Murdertown, USA was born. Priority was given to homicides, with only one officer left to focus on the one hundred sex crimes committed each year. Over time, the shelves filled until they held 1,047 untested sexual assault kits. You can feel Jen’s passion and outrage as she exclaimed, “These 1,047 kits represented 1,047 men, women, and children who have been victimized in the most personal way a person could possibly be violated.” She continued, “And we left them on the shelf.”

One of those kits represented a woman named Jessica, who was a bubbly, vivacious newlywed. She also suffered from a degenerative disease which confined her to a wheelchair and left her able to only move her left foot. After waiting for months, Jessica and her husband, Eugene, moved into a specially designed home with their 18 month-old daughter, and were in awe of how lucky they were.

Until one August night, they awoke to a loud banging noise that increased in volume until Eugene got up to check on the noise. It was clear that their luck had run out when Eugene returned to the bedroom with a stranger who held a knife against his neck. What happened next is unthinkable. Forced to stand by and keep his daughter quiet, Eugene watched as Jessica was repeatedly assaulted, unable to move or defend herself.

Though the stranger threatened their lives, Jessica called the police. Jessica described the assailant, and swabs were taken from multiple places as a sexual assault kit (SAK) exam was done. Due to circumstances, that kit sat on the shelf for five years.

Sadly, Jessica’s story is not uncommon, and hundreds of thousands of kits sit untested across the United States. Since 2004, the Department of Justice has awarded nearly $1 billion in grants through the DNA Capacity Enhancement and Backlog Reduction (CEBR) grant program, yet backlogs continue to exist at many state and local government crime labs.

The CEBR grant program has two goals:

  1. Increase laboratory capacity for DNA analysis
  2. Reduce backlogs of DNA evidence awaiting analysis

CEBR awards grants non-competitively to states and units of local government based on a formula set by the Department of Justice that allocates certain amounts to each state. This formula considers each state’s population and associated crime levels and guarantees a minimum amount for eligible applicants from each state.

In March of 2019, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) released their Report to Congressional Requestors.

Do We Know Where the Backlog Stands?

It is difficult to capture the true number of untested kits for many reasons. The GAO Report lists the following:

  • Difficulty locating SAKs
  • Insufficient or inconsistent information technology (IT) systems
  • Lack of incentive or awareness; law enforcement may be reluctant to provide counts, as this may be seen as poor performance or may expose them to legal action
  • Resource constraints
  • Lack of understanding which SAKs should be included in the inventories
  • Ensuring counts are reliable and up to date; the number of unsubmitted SAKs is constantly changing, so counts are only accurate for a small period of time.

Despite this, efforts have been made to quantify the backlog. The National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grants provide funding to state law enforcement agencies and units of local government to help them address unsubmitted SAKs. Before receiving an award, grantees must first take inventory of their unsubmitted SAKs.

The New York County District Attorney’s Office (DANY) also awards funds to for the purpose of analyzing SAKs and measures the number of SAKs submitted to labs for analysis.

The Joyful Heart Foundation, a survivor’s advocacy organization, continually monitors the number of unsubmitted SAKs in law enforcement custody. As of October, 2018, they had collected numbers from 35 states and 32 cities or counties. Data has also been collected from 26 states with laws requiring SAK inventories to be conducted.

One thing we do know is despite additional funding and efforts, the nation-wide backlog is increasing.

The backlog continues to be a problem throughout the United States, but by taking a closer look at these types of grants available, there is hope on the horizon. In fact, it was a grant from DANI that allowed Jessica’s kit to be tested. It was then that Jen’s team discovered that Jessica's attacker was already in CODIS for committing drug offenses around that same time period.

Michael Coleman was arrested, and this time it was Jessica and her testimony in a preliminary trial that scared him. His defense attorney approached Jen on a weekly basis and begged for an offer that he could take to his client. Each time, her answer was the same, “No, you will never get an offer in this case. You will never get an offer from me.”

It took a couple of years before Jessica had her day in court. Even before the trial had begun, Michael asked his attorney, “Can I plead as charged?” He is now serving a 50-75 year sentence, on a kit that never would have gotten off the shelves if not for the availability of grants.

Jessica waited years for justice to be served, but she never faltered. On the day she met Jen and her team, she said, “I knew you’d come eventually. I knew you’d come."