With cases hinging on DNA evidence, rape victims’ wait for justice can be ‘agonizing’

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- More than 1,300 rape kits are sitting untested in storage at the Kansas City Police Department, creating a backlog of evidence that represents hundreds of rape victims who are waiting for justice.

Some of those victims describe the waiting period for DNA testing as "agonizing", and believe it prevents police from getting crucial evidence that could catch their attacker.

The problem stretches beyond Kansas City, as there are tens of thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police departments across the country. Experts point out most states and individual agencies don’t have any written guidelines for processing evidence in sex crimes, and few keep track of how many untested rape kits are sitting in storage.

Diana Meyer, a rape survivor and mother of two, said it took two years to test her rape kit.

“I can't remember two years of my life,” Meyer said of the long wait for answers. “There are parts where I can't remember time with my kids and I’ll never get it back.”

Meyer said her best friend’s husband attacked her in the bathroom at a party 10 years ago.

“There was rage and there was fear,” she said, “and there was nothingness.... a lot of nothingness. My physical body had been violated. I didn't feel safe. I didn't feel safe in my home. I didn't feel safe in my skin. I really didn't even know at that point who I was. It was a violation on every level.”

Meyer said her case saw “very, very slow progress” and she began to feel unimportant.

“When I was in the process,” she said, “I repeatedly would tell people that the system was broken and that it was raping me too.”

The backlog is caused by lack of resources, according to KCPD Crime Lab Director Linda Netzel.

“It does inevitably come down to resources,” Netzel said, “and that means money, how many people can you put on this, or can you send these kits to private laboratories to work if you don`t have the staff available to work the cases?”

Netzel said KCPD only has 10 people on staff to analyze DNA, creating a constant challenge for the department, which takes on about 30 new rape cases each month and collects nearly 45,000 pieces of criminal evidence each year.

“That’s just not realistic,” Netzel said. “You`re not going to be able to work all 45,000 in a year.”

So how do police determine which rape kits take priority?

Captain Todd Paulson, who supervises the Special Victim's Unit at KCPD, said there is no state law or internal policy that requires his police department to test all rape kits. However, detectives believe DNA evidence is crucial in convicting a sexual predator, so they always send kits for testing when victims plan to prosecute.

“We have limited resources,” Capt. Paulson said, “so we have to basically get the best bang for the buck. So we test the ones that we have the highest probability of getting prosecution on and then we`ll hold those ones that we don`t until we`re ready to go with them.”

He said about half of KCPD’s backlog is made up of rape kits where the victim does not want to push forward in the criminal justice process.

“It`s a very traumatic crime,” Capt. Paulson said, “and people grieve in different ways, so we try to give them that space to grieve.”

He said his department holds on to those kits until the statute of limitations to press charges runs out.

“We maintain all that evidence so that if somebody comes back in 6 months or 5 years,” Capt. Paulson said, “we can go back and test that rape kit for DNA and pursue criminal charges.”

Julie Donelon, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Organization to Combat Sexual Assault (MOCSA), said keeping kits gives a victim options.

“Rape investigations can be very long,” she acknowledged. “They can add additional trauma to the victim, and it can be a very frustrating process for the victim. That’s why MOCSA has victims’ advocates to support survivors through that process.”

Donelon believes every rape kit should be tested, but understands the budgetary restraints facing police departments and crime labs that often prevent it from happening.

“It’s important that we do have resources available to test the rape kits,” Donelon said, “but more importantly, that we have a whole system that is designed to support the survivors and hold the perpetrator accountable.”

As for Meyer, her long-awaited rape kit results confirmed her attacker’s identity.

“Everything we did hinged on that DNA,” she said.

She eventually got her day in court, where the suspect was convicted by a jury and forever labeled as a registered sex offender.

She said that conviction gave her the strength to move on with her life, and gave her a clearer understanding of why it took so long to get justice.

“There is absolutely no way anyone can be effective at their job if they don`t have the right resources,” Meyer said, “and if the crime lab doesn`t have the right funding, and the right people in place, and the right resources to do their job, then they`re limited.”

Kansas City police just received a grant of $400,000 from the Manhattan District Attorney's Office in New York. It will allow them to send nearly 500 rape kits sitting in their backlog to private labs for testing.

For more information about MOCSA’s resources, click here.

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