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DNA Deep Freeze 

Why Los Angeles crime-fighters fell years behind on rape testing, and may never catch up

Wednesday, Mar 18 2009
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New Yorker Sarah Tofte, a Manhattan-based researcher with Human Rights Watch, was looking for a meaningful project to undertake when the trim blonde decided to focus on DNA in rape cases that have sat, untested, on evidence shelves of the nation’s police departments. She had been bothered ever since discovering that, piled high in the deep freezers of law-enforcement agencies around the country, were thousands of fat envelopes containing blood vials, swabs of semen, locks of hair and fingernail scrapings collected from rape victims — in police jargon, “rape kits.”

“It stuck with me,” she says. What secrets were lurking in all that untested evidence from horrible and violent crimes?

Tofte searched for answers in the hundreds of applications from state and local crime labs vying for $755 million from Congress, grant money created after the tragic case of Debbie Smith, a Virginia woman taken from her suburban Williamsburg home, dragged to a wooded area and repeatedly raped by a masked stranger who threatened to find her again. The DNA evidence in her 1989 case sat untested in a freezer for six years in Virginia, and, when finally tested, it proved that her attacker had been in prison while she lived in constant fear of his return.

click to flip through (8) TED SOQUI - LAPD’s giant freezers, stuffed with old rape cases, evoke a vast warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
  • Ted Soqui
  • LAPD’s giant freezers, stuffed with old rape cases, evoke a vast warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

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Experts have suggested a stunning possibility: that 500,000 rape kits, given low priority by scores of police departments, have been sitting untested for years. So in 2008, Tofte began meticulously combing public records from the Department of Justice, to find out whether the federal Debbie Smith grants have really changed anything.

She was stunned to discover that many crime labs, although lagging far behind, haven’t asked for the federal help at all. Others have been sitting on the federal cash or moving incredibly slowly. Accountability has been lax, and many police forces have been spending the money on other things.

New York stood out as a big metropolitan area that’s doing it right. The Los Angeles Police Department stood out too — as what critics see as a DNA disaster zone. L.A. is so many years behind New York’s Office of the Medical Examiner in testing long-stored DNA from sexual-assault cases that the LAPD would need millions of dollars — and a top-level initiative from Chief William Bratton — to ever hope to catch up. Lee Baca’s L.A. Sheriff’s Department is no better, years behind the practices of New York.

Critics say that neither L.A. police force is likely to catch up — and that both of these well-regarded law-enforcement leaders have essentially missed their chance now that we have entered an era of dwindling resources.

In L.A., money now being spent on outside testing labs will soon dry up, and lab workers entering the DNA-test information into computers are stretched far too thin to work on old cases, struggling to handle the hundreds of new requests from detectives that flood their labs. Critics say both the city and the county will need far more space, money and lab workers to have a chance of matching New York’s success.

Frustrated L.A. District Attorney Steve Cooley says, “There is a lot of politics going on with this stuff. A lot of posturing by some politicians. A lot of people hold press conferences — and don’t do much beyond that.”

In November 2007, when the Los Angeles Times reported that thousands of untested rape kits had been sitting in LAPD’s freezers, Tofte, watching from New York, assumed that the deeply embarrassing media headlines that year would spark action by Chief Bratton and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

But instead, City Hall politicians shrugged off pressure from women’s groups and other organizations complaining that rape victims endured a four-hour invasive procedure to collect evidence — only for it to then sit, ignored.

Tofte was struck by L.A.’s failure to fully embrace the use of modern science to fight violent crimes, particularly those against women that are often committed without a witness and rely heavily on trace evidence.

So last May, she flew to L.A. to “find out the politics behind the [DNA] backlog so I would know what I was getting myself into.”

Tofte found that even though LAPD received the largest grant of any California agency — $3,945,820 from the feds between 2004 and 2007 — the situation here has grown worse, not better. Seven hundred new cases a year are getting piled onto the freezer shelves, and Bratton’s oversight was so lacking that L.A. got nicked with a stiff $400,000 fine — half of its allotted federal funding in 2008 — for moving too slowly in using the money.

More shocking to Tofte, Bratton’s management had been ignoring the core intent of the federal Debbie Smith money, using very liberal wording in the law to conduct only a pittance of sexual-assualt tests and instead using it to buy equipment, pay for training excursions, clear up backlogs in homicide cases, and delve into property crimes.

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