July 28, 2016 DECATUR Rape kits are shown in the secure vault at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Thursday, July 28, 2016. After state law changed July 1 to require hospitals and law enforcement agencies to account for rape kits they still had, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation got a stunning call from Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. There were 205 rape kits from examinations of children at its three hospitals since 2006 that had never been picked up by law enforcement and taken to the state Crime Lab to be analyzed. KENT D. JOHNSON/KDJOHNSON@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Opinion: Mishandled criminal rape kits are national scandal

If you are puzzled by the nationwide rape kit testing backlog, Oklahoma provides maddening insight on the bureaucratic forces that create intolerable inertia — and injustice.

An estimated 225,000 rape kits have gone unprocessed across the country; more than 7,200 have been neglected in Oklahoma. Last month, a woman who reported an Oklahoma City sexual assault to police back in 2011 discovered that her rape kit had gathered dust on a shelf in Tulsa’s police department for seven years — after the Oklahoma County district attorney had informed her he was dropping the case because no rape kit existed.

Police, prosecutors and politicians do not have a sense of urgency about the issue. Why? My ongoing investigation shows that status quo obstructionists don’t want to clear the backlog because they don’t want the public poking around government-run crime labs — especially ones with a shameful history of forensic misconduct and a culture of destruction.

Solving the rape kit testing problem requires accountability and transparency. That means shedding light on long-buried secrets that go well beyond the usual incompetence and inattention that have led to backlogs. It’s not just rape victims who suffer when criminal justice agencies shut out the public. It’s criminal defendants trying to prove their innocence against charges of sexual crimes.

Consider Rayshun Mullins, who petitioned the state of Oklahoma three times for post-conviction testing of DNA evidence used against him in 2009. (The Sooner State was last in the nation to adopt a post-conviction DNA testing statute in 2013.) Three times he was denied. Why? Shockingly, dozens and dozens of crucial forensic items in Mullins’ case have been destroyed or “lost.”

Gone. Poof. Disappeared.

Oklahoma requires that criminal justice agencies “retain and preserve” biological evidence for as long as a person convicted of a violent felony offense is incarcerated. Mullins certainly meets that criteria: He is serving a whopping 1,015 years plus six consecutive life terms behind bars for multiple rapes and robberies.

There is an exception allowing destruction of biological evidence if a criminal defendant is notified in advance and given 90 days to object. But as Mullins revealed to me last week:

“They never told me that they would destroy them. I found out when I got them papers.”

The papers are part of an inventory compiled by the Oklahoma County district attorney’s office, which I obtained exclusively.

The Oklahoma City forensic analyst responsible for analyzing evidence in Mullins’ case is the same analyst who confessed to her OCPD supervisor back in 2000 that she destroyed untold numbers of rape kits after two years at the behest of her colleague and infamous OCPD rogue chemist.

It is unknown for how long and in how many other cases this routine evidence destruction continued. What is known: the practices here facilitated several wrongful convictions (including two exonerated death row inmates) over more than a decade by falsifying or destroying evidence.

Lost, burned, buried, tainted: This is an alarming crisis, whether you are a rape survivor, criminal justice reformer, forensic scientist or taxpayer. And I’m certain it’s not just an Oklahoma problem. Peel the layers of government intransigence enveloping a rape kit backlog and underneath you’ll find much more than criminal neglect.

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