Huge GBI backlog of untested rape kits down by two-thirds

Rape kits stored in a secure vault at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Rape kits stored in a secure vault at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's crime lab is making progress in its years-long slog through thousands of backlogged sexual assault evidence packages.

The GBI Division of Forensic Science’s goal is to clear out the old rape kits by the first of next year, freeing it to then concentrate on new criminal cases coming in for analysis.

“We see a light at the end of the tunnel,” said GBI Director Vernon Keenan.

Lanisha Gittens, a GBI forensic scientist, uses a microscope to look for sperm at the GBI Crime lab in Decatur in 2015. BRANT SANDERLIN / AJC

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The push to test a backlog of almost 10,000 sexual assault kits began after 1,351 untested rape kits were discovered in storage in 2015 at Grady Memorial Hospital, apparently forgotten.

The 2016 Legislature responded by passing a law requiring all Georgia law enforcement agencies to send stored rape kits to the GBI headquarters in Decatur for testing. Eventually those numbered 2,476, which was in addition to the old evidence packages from Grady.

The lab already had more than 5,400 evidence kits from sex crimes prior to 1999 that had not been processed because the technology did not exist at the time.

Moreover, the lab was logging in an average of 250 new sexual assault kits each month.

“We’re in this position because the system failed, but I am encouraged we’ve taken action to fix it and we’re making progress. But it never should have happened in the first place,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, one of the sponsors of the 2016 legislation.

The backlog has since been cut by more than two-thirds and now stands at less than 2,900. The GBI has contracted with an outside lab to process the older cases while the state's 50 scientists and technicians focus on new cases.

“I’m pleased, but when there is still a third outstanding it’s hard to jump up and down with joy,” said state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, one of the sponsors of the legislation that required law enforcement to submit rape kits to the GBI.

GBI spokesman Bahan Rich said some, but not all, the analysis of the old rape kits have resulted in matches to entries already in the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

In most instances, there is not enough DNA to provide a profile suitable for submitting to CODIS. In many instances, there is no match found in CODIS. And in some instances, suspects had already been identified and prosecuted.

There were 241 CODIS “hits” to evidence processed since the program began almost two years ago.

Of those 241, charges are pending in 112 and police are looking for the victims in eight.

“We had more CODIS matches than we anticipated and … that’s been great for investigations,” Keenan said.

“What’s disappointing,” he said, “is the number of victims that do not want their cases to go forward.”

According to GBI data, 73 victims from those 241 CODIS hits didn’t want their cases investigated or would not cooperate.

“A victim reaches a certain point … where they want to go on with their lives and not dwell on things that happened in the past,” Keenan said. “That’s why it’s important that cases not be warehoused, that there be an analysis.”

Rep. Scott Holcomb (D-Atlanta) shakes hands after the House passed the rape kit legislation he pushed in 2016 . Ben Gray / AJC

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Last fall the state activated a web site on which the victims in old sexual assault cases can log their preferences for how they want to proceed if there is a CODIS match. They don't necessarily have to wait for law enforcement or prosecutors to reach out to them, Holcomb said.

“It’s to open the line of communications between (sexual assault) survivors and law enforcement and to give them information about their kits,” Holcomb said. “A lot of these victims have waited a very, very long time to receive justice. Now that these kits have been tested, (it) should lead to the identification of the perpetrator.”

The number of victims who have accessed the site was not available.

So the slog continues.

Once the outside lab finishes testing the 448 sexual assault kits that remain from the huge batch sent to the GBI in 2016, that contractor will then begin processing pre-1999 rape kits that local law enforcement wants analyzed. (Although there are 5,400 kits from sex crimes prior to 1999, local law enforcement has specified roughly 860 that it wants tested.)

“There is still along way way to go,” Sen. Parent said.

Children’s Health Care of Atlanta rape kits submitted to the GBI before passage of the 2016 legislation

• 218 submitted

• 36 had enough DNA to submit to CODIS, the national DNA database

• 11 CODIS matches

Sexual assault kits from across Georgia submitted to the GBI after law was adopted in 2016

• 2,476 submitted

• 448 pending testing

• 241 matched DNA profiles in CODIS