In 2010, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) hailed the arrest of Jimmie Spratt, who was charged with raping three women in New Orleans — in 1994.
It took more than a decade after the crimes for law enforcement agencies to enter DNA evidence collected from rape kits into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which links federal, state and local criminal justice agencies. Before he was extradited to New Orleans, Spratt was serving time in Tennessee for another four aggravated rapes he committed in Memphis.
Also in 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice found a backlog of more than 1,000 untested rape kits in NOPD storage. Many of the kits — which contain fragile DNA evidence collected from victims — were from as far back as the 1980s and '90s. With funding from the National Institute of Justice, NOPD hired Marshall University's Forensic Science Center and the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab to test the kits. Over the last several years, NOPD gradually has tested and uploaded 256 DNA profiles to CODIS, which has led to 139 matches, 24 arrests and six convictions. The NOPD backlog is now virtually eliminated, according to sex crimes cold case Det. Merrell Merricks.
While New Orleans has had a public, federally mandated excavation of its rape kit backlog, there has been no effort to do the same statewide. Senate Bill 296, from state Sen. J.P. Morrell, D-New Orleans, would require all criminal justice agencies that handle sexual assault collection kits to conduct an inventory and issue a report to the state crime lab by Jan. 1, 2015. The crime lab then would have to report to the Senate by March 1, 2015, the number of kits in each parish and within each local criminal justice agency. This includes police, coroners and clerks of court — the custodians for past and present evidence lingering in storage.
"We haven't done a full catalog," Morrell said. "Once we determine if there's a backlog problem, we get into the nuts and bolts. Then it might get thorny."
Effective January 2013, the new definition of rape under the FBI's uniform crime statistics includes both male and female offenders and victims, instances in which the victim is incapable of giving consent (for example, being under age or under the influence of drugs or alcohol), and all versions of penetration. Beginning this year, crime data reflects those changes.
In 2013, there were 176 reported rapes in New Orleans — up nearly 30 percent from 2012, when 136 rapes were reported. Police Chief Ronal Serpas attributed the rise in cases to more victims being willing to speak out. Sarah Tofte, senior vice president of policy and advocacy for The Joyful Heart Foundation and End the Backlog (www.endthebacklog.org), notes that while the numbers are stark nationwide — thousands of untested kits and thousands of cold cases for thousands of victims — they shouldn't undermine victims' willingness and bravery to come forward. (The foundation and End the Backlog were founded by actress and activist Mariska Hargitay of TV's Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.)
In New Orleans, doctors at LSU Interim Hospital administer DNA collection for a rape kit. The process includes several swabs for body fluids, collecting hair and clothing fibers, as well as debris from the body. The kit is then taken to NOPD's central evidence and property room and transferred to the state crime lab for analysis. The transfer process and return typically take two weeks, according to Merricks.
New Orleans' old crime lab at Tulane Avenue and South Gayoso Street never reopened after Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. According to a 2010 story in Gambit, more than 100 of the 500 cases investigated during that time were lost. The city leased space at the University of New Orleans for a temporary lab.
Louisiana State Police (LSP) undertook a massive backlog elimination in 2008, when it began entering more than 30,000 DNA samples into the CODIS database. The state crime lab acts as a sort of clearinghouse database for multiple jurisdictions that lack crime labs of their own. "We take cases from anywhere," public affairs commander Capt. Doug Cain said.
If Morrell's bill passes, LSP crime lab commander Capt. Jim McGuane will send a letter to police chiefs and sheriffs throughout the state asking for compliance with the order to inventory rape kits statewide.
Rape kits typically are kept in a parish clerk of court's evidence room when the local district attorney's office accepts a case. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Clerk Arthur Morrell told Gambit he's unsure how many rape kits are sitting in his evidence room.
"We're just the depositories," he said. "We respond to orders from the judge."
End the Backlog is a national effort to drive policy and advocacy for eliminating cities' backlogs of untested rape kits. The program is a part of the Joyful Heart Foundation, a nonprofit organization for survivors of sexual assault and family violence.
In 2009, authorities discovered more than 11,000 untested rape kits sitting in Detroit Police Department's storage area. Working with the National Institute of Justice, the foundation helped test more than 1,400 kits — linking 238 DNA samples to CODIS — and identified 100 potential serial rapists. Those tests also linked DNA with crimes in 22 other states.
In 2011, the Los Angeles Police Department announced it cleared its decades-old backlog of untested rape kits. (A 2009 Human Rights Watch report found more than 12,000 untested kits in storage throughout Los Angeles.) Last year, police departments in Houston and Memphis evaluated their backlogs; each found thousands of untested rape kits.
In 2010, Illinois became the first state to pass a rape kit tracking and testing bill, which called for an inventory of the state's untested kits. Texas and Colorado followed suit. This year there are seven states — including Louisiana — considering similar legislation.
Advocacy groups and criminal justice agencies believe cases like Spratt's are commonplace. In 2011, the National Institute of Justice released The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases, which illustrated inconsistencies in reporting and analysis of rape kits across criminal justice systems. The report found that 18 percent of unsolved sexual assaults between 2002 and 2007 contained forensic evidence still in police custody and not submitted to a crime lab for analysis — yet 50 to 60 percent of kits test positive for biological material that isn't the victim's.
More than 44 percent of law enforcement agencies said that one reason they didn't send evidence to the lab was because a suspect had not been identified, while 15 percent said they didn't submit evidence because the prosecutors didn't request it. The report also found that 43 percent of law enforcement agencies don't use computer tracking of their evidence. The report similarly noted insufficient resources and funds for testing.
According to Tofte of Joyful Heart/End the Backlog, those gaps in testing leave out valuable information — even if a rapist is successfully convicted without DNA evidence, the complete DNA picture can reveal serial offenses.
"That assumption is shifting quite a bit," she said. "Any criminal justice entity that doesn't know what's in its backlog doesn't know what cases they are connected to."
The tests also can reaffirm a victim's story and "crack away the credentials of the offender," she said. "If he's lying about that, what else? It builds a stronger case for the jury."
When a state realizes the size of its backlog of untested kits, agencies can get stuck trying to find resources and funds for testing, according to Tofte. Last month, the foundation welcomed news announcing President Barack Obama's proposal for $35 million in grants through the Justice Department to fund local authorities' rape kit testing.
"Once a city or state acknowledges the problem, it's hard not to act," Tofte said. "It's hard to choose inaction."