Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights aims to combat backlogged rape kits

Testing Sexual Assault Kits

Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights aims to combat backlogged rape kits

(WAFF) - Nearly 1,900 people were raped in Alabama this year. Yet, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency says only one-third of those assaults ever get reported. ALEA says, just a tiny fraction of the offenders see jail time.

Adde Waggoner is a sexual assault prevention coordinator for Crisis Services of North Alabama, and she says, the statistics are unsettling. “So, out of the one third that comes forward, out of 100 rapes that are reported, we might see two to three convictions.”

Victims advocates say this heartbreaking reality is seen in every community in America. Ilse Knecht is the director for policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation. The group’s mission is ending the backlog of sexual assault kits. Knecht says 23 states have laws that require an inventory of rape kits and a firm timeline on getting them to the lab, tested and then back to law enforcement.

Knecht added, “We’ve seen other states have turnaround times and adhere to them. In a way, setting a deadline in law really pushes labs to become more efficient and more effective.”

Alabama does not have this kind of accountability on the books. So, Sen. Cam Ward wants to create a Sexual Assault Survivors Bill of Rights.

Among other things, it would require the submission and forensic testing of sexual assault kits within 60 days. Is that realistic? It depends on whom you ask.

Knecht said, “We say 30 days to turn around kits. We have the technology to do this, and more quicker technology to do this is coming out.”

Angelo Della Manna, who heads Alabama’s Department of Forensic Sciences, has a different opinion.

Angelo Della Manna/Chief of Forensic Biology and DNA for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences
Angelo Della Manna/Chief of Forensic Biology and DNA for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences

“Routinely the national standard or goal is to get the kit, the DNA and everything searchable in the national database within 90 days”

Della Manna says it’s a constant grind for his lab workers since they test sexual assault kits for some 450 police agencies across the states.

Della Manna says forensic sciences is underfunded. State Rep. Mike Ball, who represents Madison and Alabama’s 10th District, agrees. Ball says forensic sciences needs to make more noise when it campaigns for state funding.

“A lot of times in the debate, the Department of Forensic Sciences gets lost. It just gets lost and in the chunk of money we’re talking about, compared to these other things, it’s not really that much.”

Della Manna says forensic sciences needs at least $16 million for this coming year. He says his agency needs $4 million more than last year to replace aging equipment.

“People trade in their phones every couple of years. We’re still using equipment that is 25 to 30 years old in certain parts of our laboratories that we just need to replace.”

While 90 days is the goal at forensic sciences, Huntsville police tell us they usually receive results from a sexual assault kit in 120 to 180 days. Investigators with Florence police say it’s an average of six months. Decatur police tell us it takes anywhere from six to nine months. Rogersville Police Chief Terry Holden says he’s still waiting on the results from an alleged rape in August at the 72 Roadhouse restaurant.

Time isn’t the only issue. Some sexual assault kits are never sent to the state crime lab. When it was discovered that nearly 4,000 kits were sitting on the shelves in 2016, Jefferson County received $1.5 million from the Department of Justice. The district attorney’s office will use the money to catalog and test evidence from thousands of rape cases.

Della Manna says now that a light is shining on this issue, more sexual assault kits are being sent to his office.

“Having worked closely with the Birmingham police department and Mobile PD, those larger agencies had such turnover and had such violent crime for so long that they had their sexual assault unit within their homicide unit, that they just didn’t give those cases the attention they deserve.”

The Mobile Police Department has received nearly $3 million in federal grants since 2015, to create a more detailed inventory and test evidence from 750 kits. The city’s DNA database helped police solve a cold case from 1994. A jury convicted a rapist and an 81 year old woman finally has closure after waiting decades.

Is there a backlog of rape kits in north Alabama? Waggoner says there is not.

“We don’t have a backlog problem. Typically, our kits are turned around in about 90 days. So, they do go through the testing process.”

Crisis Services of North Alabama says it is storing 300 sexual assault kits that date back 20 years. Many of those cases involve victims who haven’t decided if they want to prosecute. Florence police says it has 200 kits in its evidence room and the number is 100 at the Huntsville Police Department.

While the backlog of sexual assault kits is not considered to be a major problem in north Alabama, The Joyful Heart Foundation maintains the state can do better. It continues to lobby legislators to pass a law that requires Alabama to count and track rape kits.

Copyright 2019 WAFF. All rights reserved.