By Emily Mills and Allie Johnson
The Kent City Police Department and Kent State Police Department submitted their untested sexual assault kits to Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation for DNA testing.
Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine required all Ohio law enforcement agencies to submit the kits after Senate Bill 316 went into effect in March of this year.
The bill requires law enforcement agencies to submit all of their untested kits up to March 23, 2015. Any kits collected after March 23 and any future kits must be submitted to BCI within 30 days of collection.
Attorney general’s initiative
DeWine has always been passionate about testing sexual assault kits, said Jill Del Greco, a public information officer for the attorney general’s office.
“When he became attorney general, he found out that there were law enforcement agencies throughout Ohio that had rape kits in their evidence rooms that had not previously been tested for DNA, for whatever reason,” she said in a phone interview. “He decided that our crime labs, which test rape kits on a regular basis, could take these old kits and test them as well…to track down people who may have committed these crimes years ago.”
Local police departments have sent in their kits and praise the effectiveness of the new system, but there is one negative side effect. Allie Johnson explains.
DeWine announced the Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative in December 2011, a voluntary program asking law enforcement agencies to submit their untested sexual assault kits for testing.
Del Greco said BCI began to get overwhelmed with the number of kits it was receiving.
DeWine developed a separate section of BCI in October 2012 that would focus exclusively on testing old sexual assault kits so current kits could continue to be tested in a timely fashion.
“While we’re clearing one backlog, we did not want to create a new backlog in that process,” said Sen. Capri Cafaro (D-Hubbard), who introduced Senate Bill 316.
As of Oct. 1, 11,067 kits have been submitted since the initiative launched in 2011, and 1,733 of those were submitted after the senate bill took effect.
BCI has tested more than 1,400 kits since March 23 and a total of 8,718 kits since 2011, when the initiative began to start testing kits, resulting in 3,204 investigative leads through the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a DNA database.
Senate Bill 316
Because the Sexual Assault Kit Testing Initiative was voluntary, law enforcement agencies were not required by law to submit their untested kits for testing.
This changed when Cafaro introduced Senate Bill 316 last year.
“We had so much success with testing these kits and getting results from them,” Del Greco said. “That’s when the legislature started looking into making it a requirement that these kits be submitted for testing.”
Cafaro said she introduced the bill to clear the backlog of untested kits.
“We had seen, particularly over the last several years, the really unfortunate impact that the rape kit backlog has had on…the victims seeking justice,” she said. “There were serial criminals that were falling through the cracks.”
Cafaro said she believes the state of Ohio has not prioritized solving unsolved rapes and sexual assaults by not testing sexual assault kits.
“The fact that these kits have been sitting on shelves in places like Cuyahoga County for years, I think unfortunately reflects on how we don’t prioritize or place emphasis on these kind of crimes,” she said. “My hope would be that the evidence would be able to bring swift justice and closure for victims.”
Kent City Police Department
Lt. Michael Lewis from the Kent City Police Department said their kits went untested for a variety of reasons, whether it was due to lack of evidence or reluctance from a victim to proceed with the investigation.
“With previous cases, there just sometimes wasn’t a whole lot to go on,” he said. “We didn’t have enough facts and circumstances to necessarily point us in (the right) direction.”
Lewis said the department has submitted its 40 previously untested sexual assault kits to BCI for testing over the summer, but he said he did not know an exact date or if any of the kits received hits in CODIS.
The department now submits all sexual assault kit tests at least weekly per Senate Bill 316’s requirements, Lewis said.
When someone reports a sexual assault to the police department, an officer or detective will interview him or her in the police department about what happened.
“It’s a very, very difficult time,” Lewis said. “Obviously we try to be as patient as we can… We do everything we can to make them feel comfortable.”
The interview can take up to a few hours. After the interview, the person who reported the sexual assault is sent to a local hospital, often either Akron City Hospital or Robinson Memorial Hospital in Ravenna, where a sexual assault nurse examiner, or SANE, examines him or her.
After the examination is finished, the police department sends an officer or detective is sent to the hospital to pick up the completed sexual assault kit.
Older kits had to be refrigerated, but newer kits do not, Knoles said.
Knoles said the completed kits are kept in a secure evidence locker before they are sent to BCI for testing.
Lewis said BCI, located in Richfield, Ohio, usually takes about two weeks to test and lets the department know if any foreign DNA was found. It takes another two weeks to know if there was a hit in CODIS.
Kent State Police Department
The Kent State Police Department had six previously untested sexual assault kits it submitted for testing.
None of the kits got any hits in CODIS after BCI testing, said Officer Tricia Knoles, community resource officer and public information officer for the Kent State Police Department.
In the past, kits were kept in storage in evidence lockers and went untested.
Now, after the department receives a completed sexual assault kit, it is immediately submitted to BCI for testing, Knoles said.
“At this point (in) time, we no longer store our evidence kits,” she said. “If we collect them after hours, we’ll take them the next day within 24 to 48 hours to be tested. We no longer store that evidence.”
Evidence such as comforters and sheets is also collected. However, it is not always submitted to BCI because it is not guaranteed to have DNA on it. This kind of evidence is stored indefinitely, Knoles said.
As of Oct. 1, 207 of Ohio’s more than 900 law enforcement agencies have submitted kits for BCI testing.
Del Greco said the number might seem low because agencies are not required to submit their kits to BCI; they can use local crime labs, such as the ones in Dayton, Hamilton County or Cleveland.
In addition, Del Greco said some agencies have kept up with testing their sexual assaults kits and didn’t have any kits to submit.
Even so, untested kits still sit in evidence rooms in police departments throughout Ohio, although the agencies have six more months to submit them before the March 23, 2016, deadline.
“The clock is ticking,” Cafaro said.
DeWine’s office sent a letter to all Ohio law enforcement agencies Sept. 23 reminding them they have to submit their kits by March 23, 2016.
“The attorney general just continues to urge law enforcement to get their kits in, if they do have any, to submit them to BCI or to a local lab as soon as possible,” Del Greco said. “We’re solving decades-old cases by testing these kits.”
Cafaro said there are no enforcement mechanisms in place to ensure agencies submit their kits by the March 23, 2016, deadline.
Del Greco said the attorney general’s office will still accept kits after the deadline.
A timeline explaining Senate Bill 316 and how both the city and university complied with the bill