Houston will spend millions to test backlogged rape kits

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by Doug Miller / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on February 13, 2013 at 7:56 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 13 at 9:09 PM

HOUSTON --  A backlog of untested rape kits amassed by the Houston Police Department will be eliminated within about a year under a plan unveiled by Mayor Annise Parker.

The city government will pay $4.4 million to private contractors who will test the kits, if city council approves.

“We are going to test everything,” Parker said.  “And going forward, we are going to test everything.  If you’re willing to put yourself through the evidence collection, we have a responsibility to honor that decision.”

The sexual assault kit backlog has been a painful problem for the Parker Administration.  An audit revealed that 6,663 rape kits have been stored and never processed.

Houston police officials gave a number of reasons for leaving the kits untested.  In some cases, for example, the victims knew their attackers, or were unwilling to prosecute.  In other cases, suspected rapists were arrested and charged based on other evidence.

“There could’ve been a confession from the suspect,” said Matt Slinkard, an assistant Houston police chief.  “Somebody could’ve been arrested, charged and actually convicted in a case where that testing did not take place.”

“There’s been an implication that these kits were just ignored,” Parker said.  “That’s been one of my frustrations and I know it’s been extremely painful for the police department to hear that.  These were not, in any case, something that was ignored.”

But in some instances, trouble with backlogged rape kits has had harrowing consequences.  For example, an 87-year-old sexual assault victim’s kit sat unprocessed for nine years from 2003 to 2012.  When it was finally tested, police linked the assailant to a string of rapes that might never have happened if the kit hadn’t sat on the shelf for almost a decade.

The mayor pointed out that untested kits may yield evidence that will link assailants whose DNA is already in a database to other crimes.

“Some of those guys who we collected this evidence for a particular case may be involved in other cases,” Parker said.

Houston’s city government was headed in the direction of testing the old kits, but now it actually has no choice in the matter. The Texas Legislature has decreed that all sexual assault kits must be tested, handing city governments an unfunded mandate that many of them have been forced to confront as a vexing financial problem.

“The statute requires that, if we have it, it’s going to go forward for testing,” Slinkard said.

Houston will pay half the cost with grant money and half with funds set aside in the current city budget.  The Parker Administration originally budgeted $5 million for the task, but under the current funding scheme the plan will cost city taxpayers $2.2 million.

The two contractors, Bode Technology and Sorenson Forensics, will process the kits for about $400 each, city officials said.  That’s roughly a third the usual cost, officials said.  Ironically, Houston has so many unprocessed rape kits it was able to negotiate a sort of bulk rate, using the magnitude of the problem as leverage with contractors.

The contractors will also process another 1,450 kits from active cases, 1,000 more HPD expects to receive in the coming year and 1,020 DNA kits from other crime scenes that didn’t involve sexual assaults.

Testing all the unprocessed rape kits is expected to take 12 to 14 months, city officials said.

The Houston City Council is scheduled to vote on the matter next week.  The reaction from council members indicates it will easily pass.

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