Sexual Assault Kits Untested At HPD

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Almost nine years after Houston's crime lab was rocked by revelations of bad science and rampant problems, Local 2 Investigates has uncovered backlogs, lengthy processing times and gaps in information still plague the department.

"The thought never crossed my mind that that would be something that I would be in danger for," said a rape survivor, whose identity Local 2 is not revealing.

At 17, this woman found herself dealing with a world she never imagined would touch her life.

"I begged, I pleaded. 'I was a virgin, please don't,'" said the woman.

After the rape came a clinical process known as a sexual assault kit, where potential evidence found on a person's body or clothes is preserved and cataloged.

"All of the battering, the bruises, the pictures of everything, where they got DNA off my body told a story," said the woman.

The woman's attacker originally claimed the sex was consensual. Evidence taken from the sexual assault kit proved that was a lie and the attacker was convicted and sentenced to nine consecutive life terms in prison.

"Mentally, it's very healing to know that's he's locked away and can never bother me again," said the woman.

Not every rape survivor can expect the same outcome.

In fact, when Local 2 Investigates examined the Houston Police Department's database of sexual assault kits, we found 15,500 kits stored in evidence. Out of those kits, approximately 4,000 kits are untested.

According to HPD's database, the oldest kit listed as "Sex Kit In Lab Not Worked" is dated Sept. 14, 1986.

"Obviously we would like to do everything for everybody all the time, but the reality is we don't have unlimited resources," said Irma Rios, HPD's crime lab director.

Rios defended some of the backlog, stating the lab has to wait for a formal request from investigators or prosecutors before a kit is tested.

Local 2 discovered the lab currently has a backlog of nearly 1,000 requests for testing. A substantial number amplified by how long Rios said it takes for the lab to process just one kit.

"It's several months for the regular screening where they make a request for biological fluid -- it's several months," said Rios.

In addition to the untested kits, HPD's database lists more than 11,000 other sexual assault kits stored in evidence, but the department cannot answer how many of those kits contain physical evidence and how many do not.

"We'd have to try to query different systems, different silos of databases, and they're not as compatible as we would like obviously,' said Rios.

Despite the lack of information, Rios said she still believes the more than 11,000 kits have at least been tested.

"I would anticipate, because they are at room temperature, that most of those have already been tested," said Rios.

The answers Local 2 Investigates received did not sit well with Houston Mayor Annise Parker, who inherited the troubled lab.

"That's an inappropriate response," said Parker, who knew about the lab's backlog, but bristled when told about the lack of information on the area sexual assault kits.

Parker said the city's limited budget is forcing the lab to balance between clearing up a backlog and handling the constant influx of new requests for evidence testing.

"Do you want to spend the money to do it, or will you spend the resources where you have ongoing investigations and pending cases?" Parker said.

According to HPD, it costs between $1,300 and $1,500 to fully test one kit.

Rios said she has seen the price tag can go as high as $50,000 to fully test a kit with multiple samples and have those samples entered into a national database of DNA samples from other crimes.

"Is it possible to rein all of this in?" Local 2 investigator Robert Arnold asked Rios.

"It's going to take people. They have to be trained and we have to have the equipment," Rios answered.

Rios said the lab is in the process of hiring 10 new scientists, has spent $750,000 to upgrade its Lab Information Management System and is working with Sam Houston State University to get a handle on what exactly is contained in the more than 11,000 sexual assault kits not stored in the department's freezer. Rios also said she is aiming for a 30-day turnaround time on requests for testing.

"Quite frankly I'm sick of all the whining," said Councilmember Jolonda Jones.

Jones is a criminal defense attorney who was one of the first to expose the bad science at the crime lab in 2002. Since then, Jones said taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to help the crime lab out of its troubles, yet problems persist.

"I am certain I wouldn't be authorizing throwing more money into a system that doesn't work," said Jones. "It's like a money pit."

Jones has been a vocal proponent of the city helping create a regional crime lab where the workload and financial burden would be shared by all law enforcement agencies in our area. Parker agrees.

"My No. 1 goal is to get an independent crime lab for the region,' said Parker.

Parker said she is in active negotiations with the county to get a regional lab, but there's no timeframe as to when this may happen. For those waiting on justice, these are problems that can't get fixed fast enough.

"It's absolutely, psychologically essential for the woman to know that's there's something there that says I'm not a liar," said the woman.

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