When police Chief Lee Russo began reviewing rape investigations in West Valley City, he made a disturbing discovery: 124 rape kits were gathering dust on the shelves of the police department he had just inherited. The cases didn’t pan out for various reasons. The victims didn’t want to pursue charges. They had changed their stories. They couldn’t be located.
But with advances in DNA profiling and database technology, Russo said, every rape kit has the potential to solve other crimes or identify patterns.
So Russo took the problem to the state crime lab only to make another disturbing discovery: It would take the lab at least two years to get all the old kits analyzed and logged into national databases.
"We had to come to an agreement with them to get processed," Russo said. "I’d love to [load] 124 kits into a vehicle and pack them down there."
West Valley City is not the only police agency with untested rape kits. Salt Lake City and Unified police departments both acknowledge that rape kits are processed at the discretion of investigators — and those that are tested could face long delays.
A rape kit potentially can be processed in a day, said Salt Lake City police Chief Chris Burbank. But at Utah’s overloaded State Crime Lab, the turnaround for a rape kit typically is four to five months, said lab Director Jay Henry.
As of late December, the lab had 97 rape kits awaiting analysis.
The good news for law enforcement is that more technology is available for crime-solving, Henry said. As law enforcement rapidly adds offenders to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), samples that previously may have had little value now are much more likely to find matches in the system.
That makes the crime lab a much more popular destination for investigators. In addition to West Valley City’s stockpile of rape kits, the Unified Police Department this year brought its own collection after a grant enabled detectives to reopen about 500 old rape cases, 50 to 100 of which had rape kits to test, said Lt. Justin Hoyal. So far, five or six of those kits have produced new leads and a few have struck direct matches on CODIS, Hoyal said. One such case is 20 years old.
Meanwhile, new types of testing also are driving up the demand for DNA analysis in new cases, Henry said — and not just in violent crimes such as rape. Detectives also have begun to turn to the crime lab for property crimes. Henry estimates the lab’s caseload has risen by at least 50 percent in recent years.
The bad news is that staffing at the crime lab has not risen accordingly. Rape kits now take about twice as long to process as they used to.
"A few years ago, we were knocking them out in about 70, down to 60 days," Henry said.
Ideally, he said, rape kits would routinely be returned in two weeks — and all of them would be processed, not just those from cases where detectives are hopeful that lab work could lead to charges.
"We’re re-evaluating some of our techniques," he said. Technicians are scaling back some time-consuming preliminary screens identifying the type of genetic material — semen, saliva and other cells — and going straight to DNA analysis.
In Henry’s vision for the future of rape investigations, examiners would take two sets of swabs and send one directly to the lab so processing could begin right away.
"What if we could bypass [police] administration and screening?" Henry asked. "We just get a FedEx set of swabs and the case report. Combine that with robotics, and I think we could have a game-changer."
The lab now does not have capacity for that, Henry said. But he thinks it’s within reach.
"Every rape victim deserves to have their rape kit tested," he said. "That’s our goal."
Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.