9OYS: Sexual assault kit tracking update – 1 year in

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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCT) This week marks the one-year anniversary of North Carolina’s sexual assault kit tracking system.

On October 1, 2018, Attorney General Josh Stein and the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory implemented a tracking system to ensure that survivors, law enforcement officers, and others would have a way to track sexual assault kits once they are collected to prevent backlogs and increase accountability.

Over the last year, 2,460 new sexual assault kits have been collected statewide and entered into the system.

In addition to those new kits, 8,299 older kits in local law enforcement custody have been entered into the system.

Entering these older kits into the tracking system is an important step in North Carolina’s efforts to address the thousands of older, untested kits in law enforcement custody.

Attorney General Stein made the following statement:

“It is staggering to learn that nearly 2,500 North Carolinians reported being the victim of a sexual assault in just one year. Each of these kits represents a tragedy in a person’s life and serves to underscore the need to test these kits and pursue justice for these victims.

I’m pleased with the State Crime Lab’s progress implementing the tracking system. In 2019, you can track your package, you can track your pizza, and now you can track a sexual assault kit. Giving people access to this system increases accountability from evidence collection to the courtroom – and it will help us test kits, put violent criminals behind bars, and keep the public safe.”

Earlier this week, the North Carolina Department of Justice submitted to the legislature a report on sexual assault kit tracking and submission.

Click here to view the report.

The numbers in the release are slightly higher than in the report; they’re the newest numbers as of October 2.

Click here to view the graphic that illustrates North Carolina’s progress addressing the sexual assault kit backlog.

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9 On Your Side is digging deeper on an issue impacting the state of North Carolina: the backlog of sexual assault kits at police departments statewide. 

Last year, Attorney General Josh Stein estimated more than 15,000 kits were sitting on shelves untested at municipalities across the state.

“I know we have repeat offenders down in that evidence locker,” said Greenville Police Chief Mark Holtzman. “They are sitting in there, and we have got to get them identified.”

Greenville Police is one department in the East facing this issue. 

When Chief Mark Holtzman joined the department in September 2015, he vowed to do something about it.

“This has been on my mind since I got here,” Holtzman said. “These are actually names. These are victims. These are people of sexual assaults, and every single one of them matters. We want to know that we have done the best we can in that case to get justice for the victim.”

The department received a federal grant, National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), in 2016 to eliminate their backlog. 

Evidence testing coordinator Jay Tilley was hired as part of that grant to test the kits.  

“There was 319 that were untested,” Tilley said. “Out of that, there were about 39 that were involved in cases that were found not to be crimes, so that left us with 280 that we had to test.” 

Some of the kits dated back to the early 1990s. 

“I think our oldest hit is 11 years old,” Tilley said. 

By hit, Tilley is referring to when a kit submitted for testing is matched with DNA from the national database CODIS, or Combined DNA Index System. 

Since the department started the project, it has tested 74 of the 280 untested kits. 

Twenty-one of those cases were uploaded into CODIS. 

From there, seven cases were identified as offenders previously unknown to Greenville Police. 

Two of those were identified as serial rapists offending in the Greenville community. 

“We are looking for serial offenders,” Holtzman said. “That is the thing we are looking for in this project, and we have already found some in this first batch. That is surprising even to us.” 

Details of those cases are unavailable as they remain under investigation. 

What is happening at Greenville Police is part of a larger story. 

9 On Your Side traveled to the Attorney General’s office in Raleigh to find out how the office is working with local police departments to reduce their backlogs.

“We have been scrounging for funding, and we secured a $2 million grant from the federal government, so we are reaching out to local law enforcement including the Greenville Police Department,” said Attorney General Josh Stein. “So, that’s the kind of thing we do, and we are doing that all across the state. Local law enforcement has to get those kits to the private labs, but it also means the state needs to step up and the General Assembly needs to support our efforts to fully outsource all of these untested kits.”

Stein said the state crime lab has tested about 850 of the 15,000 kits in the last year. 

He estimates it will cost $10 million over several years to get that number down to zero. 

9 On Your Side asked him what caused the issue. 

“They [rape kits] just started accumulating,” Stein said. “There is not a single standard statewide on what a local law enforcement agency is supposed to do when it gets a kit. That’s why I am pushing legislation that creates a very simple rule. If a local law enforcement agency gets a kit, a reported sexual assault, unless it is unfounded – they just believe for certain there is no crime that actually occurred – then they just send it to us.”

That simple rule is the new policy at the Greenville Police Department.

The department sends all new kits they receive to the state crime lab as soon as the investigation allows. 

At the same time, and in line with Stein’s plan for all local law enforcement agencies, GPD is sending its old, cold case kits to a private outsourcing firm, Bode Cellmark Forensics. 

This way, departments can balance simultaneously receiving new kits while trying to reduce the backlog of old ones. 

“Eliminating the backlog for us will probably looking realistically at about an 18-month window,” Holtzman said. “It will take about a year to get the rest of these batches sent off to the lab and about another six months past that to get all of the results back.”

Holtzman said since rapists typically commit crime more than once, he hopes testing old kits may result in matches with more recent entries in the DNA database. 

“It is built on all types of crimes, so if there is blood left at the scene of a robbery or burglary, if there is any type of evidence left with DNA in it, that gets entered in to the national database,” Holtzman said. 

Stein added that it is never too late to test a kit. 

“There is no time period when it is too long,” Stein said. “We just saw an example in Fayetteville where the rape happened over 30 years ago. They submitted it, there was a hit in the database, and now they can go make an arrest.”

The case in Fayetteville was solved by Fayetteville Police, using funds from the same national grant GPD is using.

“We are going to make links not just in Greenville, we are going to make them in the next county, we are going to make them in the next state. Put the policy in place that from here forward, we are testing all of them.”

Holtzman said GPD continues to test kits and upload them into CODIS. 

He said money used to be a barrier for police chiefs, as kits cost $10,000 to $15,000 to test. 

Now, Holtzman says it costs less than $1,000. 

He encourages departments across the state to seek additional funding, like GPD did, to eliminate their backlogs. 

Meanwhile, Stein said his office is going back to the General Assembly to seek additional funding after being turned down last year.

He encourages people to contact their local representatives to support that request.

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