Bureaucratic wrangling stalls testing of Grady rape kits

Inaction and bureaucratic wrangling over sexual assault evidence that was locked away for years at the state’s largest hospital has thrown into question whether much of it will ever be tested for DNA and whether the cases will be investigated.

The evidence, stored at Grady Memorial Hospital in nearly 1,500 packages known as rape kits, was being kept in file cabinets on the mistaken idea that federal privacy rules blocked its release to police, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation published in June.

Grady is working to turn the kits over to law enforcement as quickly as possible, CEO John Haupert said. But 227 remain in limbo as prosecutors hash out an agreement on how to process kits where patients did not sign release forms clearing the hospital to hand them to investigators.

“We’ve nagged, prodded and cajoled on our end,” Haupert said. “The only response I’ve heard is that ‘We’re still reviewing the language.’ I guess they are. I guess it shouldn’t take that long.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

Another potential holdup: Local agencies are not creating standards on how to prioritize, test and investigate the old cases — a process that others facing a deluge of untested rape kits has found to be essential.

What happens next could decide whether dangerous criminals will remain on the streets. S0me 1,200 sexual assault victims had signed release forms authorizing Grady to turn over their rape kits to law enforcement, according to a hospital count completed after the AJC investigation. This is nearly nine times the number the hospital had confirmed in June.

“It’s a scary thing, finding all of those kits,” said Mai Fernandez, executive director of the National Center for Victims of Crime, which advocates for victim rights and services. “But it is an opportunity to set things right.”

Business as usual

While other communities have taken on testing of their kits with multi-agency task forces, additional staff and new protocols, local agencies contacted by the AJC are using existing procedures to tackle them. For now, police don’t expect the untested kits to increase their caseloads by much.

In Atlanta, police will decide on a case-by-case basis whether to open them. In DeKalb, which had at least 48 kits at Grady, detectives left them at the hospital because victims declined to prosecute, said spokesman Maj. Steven Fore.

Yet there are early signs that standard procedures won’t be enough. Each police agency that responded to the AJC’s inquiries said it planned to test every kit that Grady provides — an approach that some victim advocates think could violate the rights of survivors who didn’t want to prosecute.

Also, police have disagreed over which kits belong to their jurisdictions, so it’s uncertain who will decide whether to pursue these cases. Grady gave Fulton Police names for 177 kits it had in storage, but the agency could find only five of them in its crime database.

The DeKalb District Attorney’s Office, which is giving Grady input on proposed rape kit protocols, cautions that any procedure will require buy-in and cooperation among agencies, as well as input from nonprofits that serve sexual assault victims.

“Grady’s backlog did not happen overnight and should not be resolved in haste,” said Erik Burton, a spokesman for the office.

Other jurisdictions have found collaboration to be crucial. In Detroit, officials convened a special research team which proved wrong the conventional wisdom on untested kits. Cold case victims were easier to find than expected, and most wanted to help investigators solve their cases. Also, Detroit found that kits from cases beyond the statute of limitations were worth testing because they helped identify suspects as often as newer kits do.

In Ohio, state Attorney General Mike DeWine convened an expert committee to set statewide guidelines and launched an initiative to analyze the state's untested kits. The analyses led to the identification of a suspect in more than 35 percent of cases. In Cleveland's Cuyahoga County, DNA results led to the indictment of more than 400 defendants, and prosecutors created a special task force to work these cases.

“We owe it to those victims,” DeWine said. “It certainly is the right thing to do.”

Given Atlanta’s track record on untested rape kits, a local response may not bring about enough change, said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who introduced legislation last spring to count all untested kits across the state. The statewide tally may well top five figures, he said, and policymakers need to know the full size of the problem to give it the attention it deserves.

“Unfortunately, things have been left at the local level for years, and see what happened,” Holcomb said. “I’m not one to, by rote, propose state solutions, but it’s clear in my mind that it has to happen.”

Despite these hurdles, there are some signs that changes are taking place. Fewer than 380 kits remained in Grady’s storage as of mid-November, a hospital spokeswoman said. For new kits, the hospital’s updated policy is to alert prosecutors if evidence is left there for more than 72 hours.

The statewide Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which awards grants to Grady and other sexual assault centers, is drafting minimum standards for those that it funds. Inspectors recently conducted an inspection of the hospital’s rape crisis center. A portion of a $2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which was awarded in September, could pay for testing some of Grady’s kits.

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