Grant could ease rape-kit testing backlog, bring more victims forward

Grant could ease rape-kit testing backlog, bring more victims forward
Published: Sep. 11, 2015 at 10:13 PM EDT|Updated: Oct. 26, 2015 at 11:02 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Six years ago, Kentucky's first test of the nationwide DNA database helped close a rape case that was nine years cold.

"This was one of those cases that we don't forget about," Louisville Metro Police Department Sgt. Greg Burnette said at the time. "It was such a brutal sexual assault."

The rape evidence kit yielded DNA, which led to 46-year-old Robert Sawyers, who'd been convicted seven months earlier of failure to pay child support.

But the turnaround for testing rape kits, then as now: "About six months," said Sgt. Michael Webb, public information officer for the Kentucky State Police. "I believe that's about average, for other states."

[RELATED: Rape kit grant of $1.9M awarded to Kentucky State Police]

KSP has five regional labs capable of testing for drugs and alcohol, or processing crime scenes for fibers and firearms. But only the Central Forensics Lab in Frankfort is equipped and staffed to test for DNA.

A $1.9 million grant will help Kentucky clear its backlog of rape test kits by allowing the State Police Forensic Lab to farm out as many as 3,300 of them to a private testing facility, lab director Laura Sudkamp told WAVE 3 News Friday.

"It could cut the turnaround from six months to three months," Sudkamp said. "If the testing turns up DNA that's matched to a suspect, our own lab will retest that kit. Our technicians will be the witnesses in court, or we'll cover the costs of their (the contracted lab's) technicians to go to court."

"My hope is that victims will be more willing to come in and have the exam at all," said registered nurse Andrea Corzine, a Sexual Assault Forensic Examiner (SAFE) for the University of Louisville Hospital.

UofL has eight such SAFE technicians, whose certified training includes coursework in counseling and in building rapport.

The examination itself, which involves swabbing for bodily fluids and gathering of other physical evidence, "is so invasive, so personal, that as many victims as we see, we know that even more never come forward for the exam," Corzine said.

UofL 's SAFE program examines more than 200 victims per year. Norton Healthcare's Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) program has performed 35 exams so far this year; 22 submitted for investigation, according to public relations project manager Lynne Choate.

Kentucky's General Assembly directed Auditor Adam Edelen to determine how many rape kits have been held untested at various police agencies. At least 500 such kits have surfaced.

"We typically have 1,000 kits awaiting testing," Sudkamp said. "The real number could be 2,000 or 5,000. We just don't know."

The count is expected to be completed later this month, Assistant State Auditor Libby Carlin told WAVE 3 News.

"There's the potential, a really large number of them, there may not be any DNA that they can find," Kristi Gray, a sex-crimes prosecutor for the Jefferson County Commonwealth Attorney, said.

DNA has raised the bar in sexual assault cases. Most investigators collect it and most juries expect it.

"You see it on TV all the time," Gray said. "They can tell you what tool was used, and how old the bruise is, that's not realistic."

Gray is hopeful that testing of more kits will persuade more victims to pursue justice.

"Any delay makes victims uneasy, six months, nine months," she said. "It's that more difficult to keep a case on track."

Corzine sees closure in answers.

"Maybe hearing about this funding will help them (victims) come in and have the exam done," she said. "And potentially, catch serial rapists by getting more kits tested and more DNA in the system."

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