Friday, August 26, 2011

Failure to Test is a Failure of Justice

The evidence had been there all along. It had been sitting on a shelf inside a cold storage facility at the Houston Police Department for 12 years. After a determined detective tracked it down and sent it off to the lab for testing the state of Texas realized it had a found a serial rapist. The criminal’s name is Roland Ali Westbrooks and his story highlights why every state in the union should make testing of backlogged rape kits a top priority.

For more than two decades law enforcement has had the ability to take even the tiniest specks of evidence from a rape victim – bodily fluids, stray hairs, fingernail scrapings – and match the DNA findings to information stored in a national data base called CODIS. Every time a rape kit is processed the DNA print is supposed to be entered into CODIS. And the reason for this is simple: Rapists rape repeatedly. They hardly ever have just one victim.

One study on serial offenders puts the average number of a rapist’s victims at seven while another study puts it at 11. To put this in perspective, realize that if we get just one of these perps off the street we’ve prevented several future crimes. Every year in America there are roughly 200 thousand reported rapes and it is not just women who are attacked. 10% of all rape victims are men.

The first time we know Roland Ali Westbrooks struck was in August 1995. It was a nighttime home invasion and his victim was a complete stranger, a teenager girl alone in her bedroom. Houston police say as he put a pillow over the 16 year olds face he threatened to kill her if she screamed. The girl reported the attack immediately and submitted to a complete rape examination.

Like tens of thousands of other rape kits nationwide her evidence package was never processed and no one was ever arrested for her brutal assault. After a cold case detective re-opened the teen’s case earlier this year and ordered the DNA in her kit to finally be processed, her rapist was identified as Ronald Westbrooks. The good news was that he was already in jail! The bad news was that Westbrooks was in prison because he had been convicted of another rape – a crime that occurred in 1997 – two years after the attack on the teenager. That attack might never have taken place if the 16 year olds rape kit had been tested in a timely fashion. Police suspect Westbrooks left more victims and are investigating that now.

To be sure states have made some progress in winnowing down their backlog of rape kits. When I first wrote about this topic in 2008 there were 400,000 bundles of untested evidence. Today, the best estimates put the national number at about 180 thousand. But that’s still way too many.

Sometimes lab work isn’t necessary as police have already gotten a confession or the victim withdraws the complaint. But in too many other cases it becomes a matter of indifference, inconvenience or finances. Each test costs about $1,500.

In most jurisdictions it is still up to the discretion of the investigating detective whether to order up a full lab analysis of a rape kit. Usually the victim is never told whether her evidence has been processed or relegated to some shelf to gather dust I can think of no other crime where police have definitive evidence of a crime and fail to process it. I think it is unconscionable.

Information from these kits, entered into CODIS, would likely mean numerous outstanding sex crimes could be solved. The perpetrator could be identified, taken off the streets or slapped with a longer prison sentence if they are already behind bars like Roland Westbrooks. More importantly, victims could finally feel a sense of justice.

It’s already happening in Texas. The popular Texas-based blog Grits for Breakfast reports that when “Tarrant County tested their entire backlog they identified five serial rapists by matching the results to CODIS.” Imagine – five dangerous criminals were scooped up just by testing evidence that was already there!

May I be so blunt as to ask, “What the heck are we waiting for?” And don’t tell me it’s a matter of money. The money spent on processing these kits would be far less than what we would have to pay out to investigate and prosecute these rapists’ future crimes.

I call for a nationwide initiative to examine every relevant kit. Let’s get every state to dedicate one group of lab technicians to examine the most recent kits so as to stop currently active rapists. A second group should examine the oldest kits with an eye on the ones that might come up against a statute of limitations problem. Let’s get that information into CODIS and see how many more perps we can get off the streets.

The perfect tool is already sitting there if we would just use it! Anybody with me?


Ruthie said...

What if we had a War on Sexual Violence instead of a War on Drugs?

Anonymous said...

I second Ruthie's comment! Great post Diane!

bail bonds las vegas said...

I think once a person is convicted of rape, they need to sentence them as if it was a murder. That is a brutal crime and it needs to be handled as such.

Anonymous said...

what about someone who was misidentifed and has been incarcerated for nearly 25 years for an alleged rape. When seeking to prove his innocene thru dna testing, he received a reply claiming that the evidence was lost in 2002 and in 2006 destroyed. Who is the victim here?