Hundreds of rape kits, some stored for years, to flood State Crime Lab

The GBI’s State Crime Lab expects to receive an additional 864 rape kits within a week that have been stored, for years in some cases, in police evidence lockers and never analyzed for DNA matches.

Sixty-one percent of them will come from the Atlanta Police Department, according to GBI records.

A new state law gave law enforcement agencies until Aug. 15 to inform the Crime Lab how many kits containing DNA evidence were in storage and had never been analyzed. The deadline to deliver those kits to the Crime Lab is next Wednesday.

“We didn’t have any idea how many rape kits were out there,” said Vernon Keenan, director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. “These are rape kits that were in the evidence rooms and we don’t know anything beyond that.”

The hundreds of additional kits will add to a massive pile already stacked up at the Crime Lab. The lab’s 40 scientists are dealing with 3,159 active cases, including 211 rape kits that had been stored until earlier this year at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta; local police never retrieved that evidence.

By the middle of next week, the load should be increased by another 864 evidence kits retrieved from police evidence lockers around the state.

For years the GBI had told local police not to send DNA evidence for analysis for cases that were not likely to be prosecuted. But then a year ago, the agency changed that policy and also started telling local authorities a change in the law was likely.

As a result, the GBI got 2,400 kits that, until then, had not been processed by the state’s scientists.

In all, the number of kits requiring analysis comes to 6,420, with another 100 or 200 new cases coming in every month.

Lab director George Herrin the backlog won’t all be processed this year and “it probably won’t be done in 2017. It’s going to take years.”

And there could be more that what they know is coming.

“There’s no way to know what people haven’t told us,” Herrin said.

The lab can process 500 to 600 rape kits a month, but the time each analysis takes can vary depending on the complexity of the sample, Herrin. said. A private lab has a contract to 50 kits a month.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first raised the issue of rape kits sitting unexamined in police evidence lockers or at hospitals in 2015, when the AJC disclosed that 1,500 untested rape kits were stored at Grady Memorial Hospital. (Grady is home to the sole rape crisis center for Fulton County.) Yet police were not notified and the kits were never tested for DNA, even though victims suffered through a traumatic physical exam and asked that the evidence be shared with law enforcement.

The discovery at Grady prompted the Legislature to change the law this year to ensure such evidence is processed as it should be. Passed in the final minutes of the 2016 legislative session, the 2016 rape-kit statute requires law enforcement to pick up kits used to collect DNA within 96 hours and to send the evidence to the state’s forensic lab within 30 days.

The AJC reported this summer that more than 200 kits had been sitting at Children Healthcare of Atlanta, some for many years, because police agencies had never come to collect the kits.

According to the GBI, 52 police departments and sheriff’s offices answered the call this month to report the number of sexual assault kits they were holding. Atlanta police accounted for by far the largest number — 531 — but the department has not responded to multiple requests for comment from the AJC.

“I knew we had the problem of kits sitting on the shelf but no action was taken,” said state Rep. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta, who pushed for the law.

Cobb County Police Department has 49 kits, many samples the agency had not previously submitted because those cases were not pursued.

Gwinnett County Police Department will send 45 rape kits that were collected before this year, most “closed/suspended due to a lack of investigative leads in the case,” Gwinnett PD said in an email.

“It’s essential to the victims,” Ann Burdges of the Gwinnett County Sexual Assault & Children’s Advocacy Center said of the old cases being submitted for testing. “It fosters trust and confidence in the system.

Almost inevitably, the DNA in some of the kits will match with evidence already in the national database, the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. That has already been the case in a handful of analyses, and advocates are expecting more “hits” in CODIS as more DNA samples go into the database.

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