As the state's crime lab struggles to process more than 1,300 rape kits that were found stored and forgotten at Grady Memorial Hospital, an avalanche of additional DNA evidence has rolled in, partly because of a new state law that governs when DNA evidence must be submitted.
“They just kept coming in the door,” said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. The GBI’s Division of Forensic Sciences, aka the state crime lab, examines the DNA collected in criminal cases.
Despite whittling down the material from Grady and elsewhere, the state crime lab still finds itself swamped with more than 9,000 DNA kits to process, many of them years-old evidence packages that police agencies recently sent because of a 2016 law that sets deadlines for getting rape kits to the state.
Keenan wonders if the state’s scientists will ever get caught up.
The deluge began with 1,351 kits discovered at Grady in 2015 — a number estimated to be 1,400 t0 1,500 until all the evidence had been sent to the lab.
The discovery of the rape kits at Grady led the 2016 Legislature to pass the law setting deadlines for local law enforcement to submit DNA to the state crime lab.
But even before that law was passed, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta notified the GBI that it also had rape kits — as many as 218 evidence packages containing DNA collected from young patients that had never been picked up by law enforcement. (Initially, officials said there were 211 kits found at Children's Healthcare.)
All the while, new cases were coming to the state’s forensic lab in Decatur.
"It's a mess," said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who along with state Sen. Elena Parent, D-Atlanta, was behind the law that set deadlines for when rape kits must be sent to the state's forensic lab.
According to the lab, the backlog now includes:
» 876 Grady rape kits still to be processed;
» 1,983 current cases that were in the lab when this year started;
» 17 remaining rape kits picked up last year from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta;
» 2,905 previously “unsubmitted” rape kits that local law enforcement sent the lab following the Legislature’s actions;
» 4,533 sexual assault kits from crimes prior to 1999 that had not been processed because the technology did not exist at the time.
“We should be moving forward deliberately and somewhat swiftly,” Holcomb said. “If it’s an issue of resources, we need to know about that and have a discussion about that.”
The GBI is preparing to notify local law enforcement agencies statewide that technology advances have made it possible to test thousands more DNA samples the state forensic lab had been holding since the 1990s.
The Legislature, though, has thus far not provided money to test the additional rape kits.
A grant is paying for the GBI’s hire of a private lab to test the Grady kits for DNA. But that lab can only take 50 kits at a time, which is why just about a third of them have been processed.
Scientists found that 83 of the Grady kits tested so far had suitable DNA for testing, and those profiles were recorded in the national Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. Forty-two of them matched DNA profiles of prisoners or evidence collected in unsolved crimes that were already in CODIS.
“That’s an extraordinary hit rate,” Keenan said.
» RELATED: Locked Away: Grady Memorial Hospital withheld rape evidence
Of the rape kits processed from Children’s Healthcare, scientists thus far have found “male DNA” in 52 of them, and eight matched profiles already in CODIS.
So far, the state has matched DNA collected in exams of 21 children, including 13 of the kits discovered at Grady.
The results of one of those hits was reported to Clayton County law enforcement.
Clayton Police Chief Mike Register said a detective was "actively working" a case involving a 14-year-old examined at Egleston Children's Hospital, part of the Children's Healthcare network.
“We’re very interested in every victim,” Register said, “but your hearts really go out when it’s a child.”
The evidence collected from the Clayton teenager several years ago revealed the DNA of a Georgia prisoner, according to the GBI.
“We don’t know if it was rape or child molestation,” said Clayton District Attorney Tracy Graham Lawson. “But I feel confident that our Clayton County Police Department will follow through on any information in order to solve this type of heinous crime involving a child.”
The results of two other Children’s Healthcare CODIS hits were forwarded to the DeKalb County Police Department.
Maj. Stephen Fore said police already knew the identity of suspect in one, but the girl and her parents did not want detectives to pursue a case. In the other, the suspect is in prison but they cannot find the girl, who was a teenager.
» RELATED: Rape kit bill that was nearly blocked becomes Georgia law
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office has received the results of the 42 matches on the Grady kits and is waiting on the College Park Police Department to finish its work on the CODIS hit in the case of a 3-year-old examined at the Egleston hospital.
Howard said his office already knew the identities of suspects in seven of the 42 Grady cases and had already secured indictments when they received the GBI report. “The DNA in these cases confirmed the identifications that had already been made,” Howard said.
Now his office, along with the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and local police agencies, is discussing how to approach victims connected to the remaining 35 cases so they won’t be “re-traumatized” when they learn about the discovered DNA evidence.
“We are just beginning to initiate the contact protocol,” Howard said.
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