Mayor, HPD propose plan to eliminate rape kit backlog

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - A proposal made to City Council Wednesday by Mayor Annise Parker and the Houston Police Department aimed to eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits within a 12- to 14-month period. 

If the proposal is approved by Council, then the thousand of untested rape kits stored in evidence could be shipped out as early as next month for testing.

Two years ago, Local 2 Investigates exposed a massive backlog of untested rape kits stored in evidence in HPD's property room. Since then HPD has conducted an exhaustive audit of a backlog city officials all agree was "decades" in the making.

Rape kits contain physical evidence found on victims that can be vital in prosecuting a rapist and potentially linking that person to other crimes. Last year, HPD officials determined the department had 6,663 untested rape kits stored in evidence.

"We didn't want a fix, we didn't want to piecemeal it -- we wanted a solution," said Parker. "Now we have an opportunity to clear the books."

Parker, along with HPD officials, proposed sending all of the untested kits to two private labs run by Bode Technology and Sorenson Forensics. The anticipated cost of the project is $4.4 million, half of which would be paid for with federal grant money. Council had already included up to $5 million in this year's budget to tackle the backlog.

Parker and HPD officials said after the more than year-long review of the backlog, they do not believe any of the untested kits allowed a rapist to simply walk free. Rather, police said, other evidence may have made the testing of a particular rape kit unnecessary in solving a crime.

"There could have been a confession from a suspect, somebody could have been arrested, charged and actually convicted in a case where that testing did not take place," HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said.

Still, the testing of these kits may reveal other related crimes the department was not aware of at the time a determination was made not to test a specific kit.

"This is an opportunity to go back and find if there was anything there that was missed over the years," said Parker. "It may link them to other cases, and that is what the hope is."

In addition to eliminating Houston's backlog, the proposal put before council also called for the two private labs to also test another 1,450 "active" kits, 1,020 kits containing evidence in crimes other than rape and the 1,000 rape kits the department is expected to receive over the next year.

Parker and HPD's proposal said the average cost of testing each kit is $401.60, as opposed to other vendors charging an average of $1,134 per kit.

"This is essentially volume pricing, we were able to lock into this price because of the amount of work we're sending to these labs," said Parker.

Parker added this proposal will also help clear the way for an independent crime lab to take over testing of DNA evidence in the future.

"We didn't want this lab to be burdened with the problems of the past," said Parker.

"We will get to a position where we can guarantee every victim that sexual assault evidence or other DNA evidence will be processed thoroughly," said Scott Hochberg, chairman of the Houston Forensic Local Government Corporation.

Since the backlog was first brought to light, there has been a major shift in state law that takes the decision of whether a kit should be tested out of the hands of law enforcement. In September of 2011, a state law went into effect requiring every rape kit collected to be tested. Before this law went into effect, HPD and many other police departments would determine on a case-by-case basis whether testing a kit was needed to help solve a case.

City Council is expected to vote on this proposal next week.

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