That evidence kits have been sitting untested since before 2014 — while rape victims are denied justice and rapists remain at large, undetected — is a tragic commentary on Virginia’s law enforcement system.
But at least the state is working through the backlog.
Attorney General Mark R. Herring recently announced that the first phase had been completed in an effort to eliminate the backlog of rape evidence kits.
Evidence has been evaluated by state forensics experts in 1,770 kits dating to before 2014, resulting in 568 DNA profiles added to a national database and yielding 239 “hits” that were shared with local law enforcement. However, there have been no new arrests.
Ten kits from Albemarle County from the pre-2014 period were processed by the Department of Forensic Science; one hit was produced, but that hit has not been confirmed by county law enforcement officials, according to the attorney general’s report.
Three kits were processed from Charlottesville, resulting in no hits.
Statewide, it is to be hoped that most of these DNA confirmations will result in cases closed, justice obtained, and predators taken off the street.
Without taking away from Mr. Herring’s accomplishments in tackling the backlog, it is still shocking — and unnerving — that such a backlog could have accumulated to begin with.
What good is it to collect evidence if that evidence is never evaluated?
It’s an especial insult to the victims, who not only had to endure rape but also the indignity (and to some, the retraumatization) of submitting to a DNA collection procedure.
The next step is dealing with evidence kits from the 2014-2016 period. Current testing is being conducted with the help of a $1.4 million grant secured from the U.S. Department of Justice by Mr. Herring and the DFS in 2015. It’s estimated that 1,000 rape kits will be tested during this phase.
And according to state legislation passed in 2016, rape kits now must be tested immediately — no more allowing them to collect dust in corners.
In sum, then, completing phase two of the stepped-up testing — for the 2014-2016 kits — should eliminate the backlog completely, since no further accumulation should develop if the law is followed properly.
Mr. Herring says that the current emphasis on prompt testing, the effort to catch up on delayed testing, and the application of other changes are changing the way “sexual violence is investigated and prosecuted in Virginia, and the way that survivors are treated when they come forward.”
The attorney general says he is promoting training and other forms of support for victims and victim advocates to make “trauma-informed, survivor-centered practices the new norm.”
His office also is working on best practices for reinvestigating cold cases and on ways of “overcoming the unique challenges of investigating and prosecuting sexual violence cases.”
These changes should markedly improve Virginia’s approach to sexual assault crimes. The state must redeem itself from its disturbing failure to analyze evidence in the past, and these reforms should help compensate for the disgrace of that failure.