After the city of Houston spent millions to erase a massive backlog of untested rape kits, politicians, police and prosecutors all celebrated.
But the KHOU 11 News I-Team discovered the backlog is creeping back—another blow to victims of sexual assaults.
“It’s incredibly, incredibly traumatic,” Sonia Corrales said of the rape kit exam itself.
Corrales is chief program officer and victim’s advocate with the Houston Area Women’s Center. She said the exam is an intimidating and invasive experience.
“So when somebody comes forward, they have an expectation that my forensic evidence that was just collected, something is going to happen to it,” Corrales said.
But nothing has happened in a kidnapping rape, and a robbery and stabbing rape case. Their DNA evidence kits have sat on a shelf for nine months. And when that happens, Corrales said the potential for other sexual assaults is real.
"An offender is out there, possibly reoffending.” Corrales said.
The I-Team discovered those are just two examples of 333 rape kits backlogged at the Houston Forensic Science Center, the independent crime lab created two years ago as a solution to scandal-plagued crime lab formerly run by the Houston Police Department.
Of the 333 backlogged kits, 234 of those have gone untested for more than three months.
Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, spoke to the I-Team.
Hunt: “I would say it's a train wreck.”
I-Team: “Those are harsh words.”
Hunt: “That’s exactly what I’d say it is.”
"We've done our job. We're now waiting for the lab analysis on this, and you've got some that are close to a year backlogged? Unacceptable,” Hunt said.
The new backlog comes just one year after city leaders proclaimed the end to a massive backlog of 6,600 rape kits that dated back decades. Those leaders also promised no future delays.
In February 2015, then-Houston Mayor Annise Parker declared “this is a problem, one longstanding problem that has been solved.”
The I-Team sat down with Dr. Peter Stout, chief operating officer of the Houston Forensic Science Center.
I-Team: “The problem isn't solved, is it?”
Stout: “We still have work to do.”
I-Team: “What do you look that victim in the eye and what do you tell that person?”
Stout: “I tell them I am sorry that's the case of where we're at.”
Stout pointed to antiquated facilities and an outdated computer case management system for slowing things down. He said the crime lab also is asking the city for more money to hire more analysts.
But HFSC’s treasurer is actually projecting a $2 million budget surplus this fiscal year.
“If you need more money, that's one thing, but if you're telling me that you're $2 million in the black, how can you have all these things backlogged?” Hunt said.
The board of directors that oversees the crime lab said it’s still discussing how to spend that extra money.
So the I-Team sat down with Board Chairwoman Nicole Casarez.
I-Team: “For you as chair, would rape kits be the number one priority?”
Casarez: “I would need to talk to the board about the best use of those funds; it may well be the number one priority is sexual assault kits.”
Casarez said she doesn’t expect the current backlog to grow because turnaround times have begun to improve. She said the Forensic Science Center used to clear about 40 rape kits a month, and last month cleared 120.
The Houston Police Department declined an on-camera interview request. A spokesperson provided the following statement:
“We work closely with the Houston Forensic Science Center administration to ensure they provide effective and efficient services to our department. It is the utmost desire of both HPD and HFSC to expedite all investigations to ensure justice is served to the affected parties. We will continue to work with HFSC in hopes of improving all aspects of the process.”
Do you have a story the I-Team should investigate? Email your tip to firstname.lastname@example.org.