Unprocessed Justice: Investigating the Rape Kit Backlog 7/23/12
CBS 7 Reporter
July 23, 2012
Midland, TX - It's a violent crime that strips a victim of her dignity. And in order to prosecute a sexual assault case it requires an invasive test to collect crucial evidence.
But in some cases that evidence is sitting on a shelf locked away for months. In Midland and Odessa alone nearly 300 kits are waiting to be tested.
Tonight you'll hear from a victim who understands how frustrating this wait can be. In her case, that evidence was crucial to getting justice against her attacker.
For her, it started as a casual relationship but quickly turned violent.
"It went on for months, him hitting me, throwing me, leaving me bruised," this victim describes.
And the abuse just got worse when he broke down the door to her home, beat her nearly to death and raped her.
"He did what he said he was going to do, and he hurt me for 2 hours," she explains.
After the attack, he threw her in a car demanding she drive him home. Later, she swerved into a gas station, ran inside and frantically asked the clerk for help.
Police immediately arrived on scene and arrested him, while she went to the hospital to undergo an specialized exam to collect physical evidence at Midland Memorial Hospital.
"These exams are going to be vital," explains MMH SANE Nurse Cori Armstead.
The nurses use cameras to get pictures of bruises and show signs of trauma.
Then they begin to work through every step of the kit, swabbing for DNA to be used as evidence in the case.
"It’s crucial in one huge respect: DNA evidence tells you who...who did it," claims Midland County Assistant District Attorney Steve Stallings.
The evidence in this woman's case put the rapist behind bars for 28 years.
"There was a lot of evidence, everything I told them that he had done was found and yes it did help,” she says. “That really helped, it helped to put him away."
But that’s not the case for everyone, across the country 400,000 rape kits are sitting on a shelf untested and there are 15,000 in the state of Texas alone. So we did some digging of our own and discovered that in most cases a shortage of employees and lack of funding is to blame.
"In a lot of cases it does make or break a case," Stallings says. "Sometimes it will exonerate the defendant, the victim will say 'so and so sexually assaulted me' you take a rape kit test and it comes back to be somebody else."
When the victim doesn't know the attacker the evidence from a rape kit can serve as the missing link.
"You have a victim who is walking along the street and she's sexually assaulted by an unknown assailant that leaves DNA evidence sometimes that person is in the Codis Database, we find him anyway," Stallings explains.
But as our investigation reveals, getting results is not always an efficient process.
"Normally it's a long wait, a very long wait," Stallings says. “We like to get our evidence and get to trial and that frustrates us.”
In many cases, the trial is put on hold for nearly 8 months
"Number one it could impact your ability to take the case to a grand jury,” he says. “And of course that's very frustrating even for the defense if you've got somebody you think is the defendant, you take DNA evidence and he's sitting in jail for six to eight months."
But the wait is even more agonizing for the victim who's aching for justice.
"They absolutely want closure, they want the criminal justice system to get them that closure, to get them justice," Stallings claims.
"It's all a healing journey for them because from the time that assault occurs we are so important in getting in there and helping them understand that they are OK,” Armstead says. “We are starting that healing journey for them and we are going to get them through that piece and it takes every one of us to do that."
"My life has changed. Big time," the victim says through tears. “I'm still a little nervous, I feel very humiliated and it’s hard for me to be out in public. I don't go out in public very much. I have worked through this; I'm trying to work through it. There are days that are hard and there are other days that are better. I will survive this."
And there is a team of people behind her, helping her to do just that.
"It is very, very rewarding in itself just in seeing the people that walk out of here empowered that we are going to make a difference, were going to stop this, and its not going to happen again," Armstead says.
"We’re human and were beautiful and we don't deserve this," the victim says.
One local organization isn't going to let this issue be swept under the rug and they're taking action. Coming up Tuesday at 10:00pm we will show you what they have in mind as a possible solution to relieving the backlog of untested rape kits and helping the victims.