About 30 years ago, my sweet, elderly aunt for whom I was named was brutally beaten and raped in the country church where I was baptized and where five generations of my ancestors are buried.
She had gone there on a Saturday morning to practice the organ selections for the next day. A neighboring farmer and family friend found her naked and barely alive on the church steps. She survived to bear witness in a courtroom where they acquitted her rapist. No DNA evidence was supplied.
The following week, all of the witnesses that provided an alibi for her rapist received new cars from the car dealership belonging to the rapist’s father. Rape is usually a serial offense. Eventually, he was convicted after raping a young woman when her car broke down, stranding her on the highway. DNA evidence from a rape kit finally nailed him and, thankfully, he is now in prison.
The young man who date-raped my little sister when she was in high school is still out there. A rape kit might have convicted him.
We know that one in four rape kits results in a conviction, a reason that a former Ohio prosecutor called rape kits “the best bargain in the history of law enforcement.”
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network), one out of every six women will experience attempted or completed rape. One out of every thirty-three men will also experience it. It is so common that sadly, most of us know friends or loved ones who have been violated. We have seen DNA convict perpetrators as well as free those who were wrongly incarcerated. So why is it that we have such an incredibly large quantity of untested rape kits in our country and in North Carolina?
In 2017, a bill addressing untested rape kits was initiated by the Rape Crisis Center of Cumberland County and a Fayetteville Police Department’s Special Victims Unit commander with the help of the Fayetteville National Organization of Women, and was passed by the General Assembly. As part of the state budget, an inventory of untested rape kits in North Carolina was mandated.
Every law enforcement agency was contacted and 92% responded. It was revealed that as of February of this year, more than 15,000 test kits in N.C. have not been tested. Of those kits, 3,820 were never sent because the allegations were determined to be unfounded, 2,741 cases were not tested because the cases were resolved in court, and 7,545 untested rape kits remain.
Surprisingly, some counties reported no untested kits. It is believed that many older kits across the state have been disposed of. Also surprising was the fact that none were reported from universities. Studies show that 20 to 25 percent of undergrads report that they have been assaulted or raped. So the number of kits reported in the inventory are only a partial number of the actual rape kits that have been collected.
Why isn’t this astounding number of rape kits—the largest backlog in the country—being tested?
One answer is funding. The average cost of testing a rape kit is $700.00. But who foots the bill to test these kits? N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein requested $2 million from the legislature to begin the outsourcing of testing of some of the rape kits.
“Testing these kits is important for promoting public safety,” Stein said. “It brings offenders to justice, it secures justice for victims, it closes cases and it prevents future crime.”
Stein also wants to institute a tracking system similar to a bar code to track kits going forward so that the State Crime Lab can track cases and process them expeditiously, and the survivors themselves will know the status of their kits.
Gov. Roy Cooper budgeted the $2 million in his proposed state budget. The legislature, however, budgeted zero dollars this year even though the inventory was mandated by them just last year. Republican senators Shirley Randleman of Wilkesboro and Norman Sanders of Arapahoe have introduced a bill that “…will get the process started. The money can follow next year.”
Four states–Connecticut, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan—currently have mandated rape kit testing legislation.
The legislature also slashed $10 million from Stein’s budget, resulting in the loss of 45 positions in his department. Such a devastating loss of manpower only exacerbates the problem.
In a March report in the Journal of Forensic Science, two Stanford University professors wrote that every dollar spent on the analysis of a kit returns $81 in averted future assaults. They believe that to be a conservative estimate.
The report estimates that the average number of assault victims per assailant is 26, based on police data for jailed perpetrators. Millions of dollars could be saved over time by getting perpetrators caught much earlier and saving additional victims from trauma, hospital exams, lab costs, physical and psychological treatment. The report goes on to estimate that there are around 400,000 untested sexual assault kits backlogged in the country.
Questions have also been raised about what the priorities are concerning the processing of rape kits. While DNA tests are completed quickly in cases of murder, rape kits are hopelessly backlogged. Nine out of ten victims of sexual assault/rape are women. Is the fact that rape is primarily a women’s issue putting rape kit testing on the back burner?
“Juries expect scientific evidence,” says Kimberly Robb, Pitt County district attorney and president of the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys. “It is no longer enough to say we don’t have it…They watch ‘CSI’. They watch ‘NCIS’.”
My Aunt Mary and my sister deserved better. You and your loved ones deserve better. This state deserves better. Call or write your representatives to demand funding for rape kit testing. Go to www.EndtheBacklog.org for more information.
Mary Prentis Jones is a retired teacher who lives in Raleigh. Margaret Peeples is a Charlotte NOW member.
Gailya Paliga, NC NOW President, contributed to this essay.