After HPD submitted the sample for testing to the Department of Public Safety, it took nine months for a DPS crime lab to get around to testing it. That really is too long and speaks to a general lack of capacity and an overwhelmed crime lab system.In August 1995, a 16-year-old Houston girl was awakened in the middle of the night by a strange man standing in her bedroom doorway.
He walked over and put a pillow over her head. As she wept, he raped her, ordering her not to make a sound or he would kill her. Then he stole some money and left.
After calling police, the teen underwent a sexual assault examination. That rape kit evidence was placed in the Houston Police Department property room — and that's where it sat, untested for 12 years.
Last month, after a Houston Police Department investigator re-examined the case and requested the evidence be tested, the identity of the alleged rapist was uncovered: Roland Ali Westbrooks, 36, convicted and sentenced in 1997 for raping another Houston woman.
Westbrooks, serving a 28-year sentence in a Texas prison after pleading guilty to the 1997 rape charge, was charged Monday with aggravated sexual assault of the 16-year-old, according to court records.
This is the first such case to come to light since the Houston Chronicle reported last month that almost 4,000 sexual assault kits — some dating to the 1990s — sit in an HPD property room freezer awaiting testing.
HPD crime lab officials have said the slow process in testing the evidence is due to a lack of resources. In the past, HPD officials have declined to comment how the evidence is being processed by their crime lab personnel in cases that are considered to be active investigations.
Sen. Whitmire said at the end of the article that "There may be thousands of other scenarios like this one," but that may be overstating things. According to testimony give to support a bill last session by state Sen. Wendy Davis that encourages testing rape kit backlogs, when Tarrant County tested their entire backlog they identified five serial rapists by matching the results to CODIS. All the others were inconclusive or didn't result in a match. According to the Texas Observer, "the state estimates some 22,000 untested kits are collecting dust on shelves in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio law enforcement offices alone." My own belief is that a thorough vetting of those cases would reveal additional innocent people falsely convicted as well as guilty people never identified.
There are several separate but related dynamics at play right now concerning untested rape kits in Texas. For starters, Sen. Royce West's SB 1616 will require new rules to be established at DPS about biological evidence retention, storage, etc., that will apply to counties with populations of 100,000 or greater beginning January 2013. Simultaneously, Sen. Wendy Davis' SB 1636 encourages DNA testing of backlogged rape kits and requires law enforcement agencies by October 15 to "submit to DPS a list of the agency's active criminal cases for which sexual assault evidence has not yet been submitted for laboratory analysis." Meanwhile, in Houston their much berated crime lab has received a grant to analyze their rape kit backlog to determine why those particular cases were never tested and to recommend criteria for how to determine whether testing is needed. In just a couple of years, we'll know a lot more about rape kit backlogs and will have new rules in place governing biological evidence preservation in larger jurisdictions.
So we're in an incredibly dynamic period in Texas regarding retention and testing of biological evidence, with a lot of folks presently thinking about the problem. But most suggested solutions require money nobody immediately has to hand. This cold case solved in Houston is a fine thing, but for that outcome to be replicated, testing old rape kits will need to become a greater priority that supersedes competing demands. At least until 2013 when the Lege meets again and likely not even then, state general fund revenue won't be available to tackle rape kit backlogs, leaving grants from the Governor or the feds, or else local expenditures, as the only way to address the situation in the near term.
See related Grits posts:
- Bills encourage testing, proper retention of rape kits and other biological evidence
- The DNA's over there, right next to the jelly
- Bill would probe rate kit backlogs, encourage testing
- Senate bills encourage retention, testing of old rape kits, DNA evidence
- Houston gets DOJ grant to analyze why rape kits went untested
- Backlog of DNA cases complicates Houston crime lab's bias problems
- Large backlogs for DPS forensics testing
- Unanalyzed evidence held by law enforcement agencies
- Test possible innocence cases among Bexar DNA cache
- Reducing forensic backlogs a source of rare agreement at hearing
- Security theater vs. crime fighting reality in an era of tight budgets
- Pilot collaboration on DNA testing could presage regional Harris County crime lab