Sunday, April 06, 2014

Houston crime lab found hundreds of CODIS 'hits' in rape-kit backlog

When Houston PD began processing backlogged rape kits in reaction to SB 1636, crime lab director Irma Rios told the Texas Forensic Science Commission on Friday, they outsourced 9,723 cases to private vendors because they lacked internal capacity to handle the volume. Of those, so far they've received reports back on 8,450 cases and lab workers have reviewed 5,651 of them.

Here's the astonishing part, though: As a result of those reviews, the lab uploaded 1,662 cases to CODIS, which is the national DNA offender database, and found 607 "hits," meaning they identified a suspect whose DNA matched the rape-kit sample. That's about 36.5% of cases uploaded. And 26 of those may be serial rapists - i.e., they got multiple hits for a single offender.

So Houston PD had rape kit evidence in their possession that could have solved these crimes but the evidence had never been tested!

To her credit, that's exactly what state senator and now-gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis predicted when she sponsored SB 1636. She'd wanted to require backlog testing but couldn't secure funding and so the watered down version that finally passed required testing only if funding is available to do so. That legislation spurred Houston to confront its backlog, but other agencies have pled poverty and still haven't tackled the problem. (UPDATE: The Texas Lege last year earmarked $11 million in the DPS budget for testing old rape kits.)

Many of these were older cases dating back to the 1980s, so for some of them the statute of limitations has run out and the cases can't be prosecuted. But prosecutors can use the evidence to help enhance (read: boost penalties) for future crimes and also to oppose parole for those locked up in Texas prisons for other offenses, which includes a significant number of those identified. Rios didn't detail the criteria by which they chose to update results to CODIS, so we can't know whether there may even be more cases from the backlog where it's possible to identify perpetrators or potentially exonerate people who were wrongfully convicted.

The Houston crime lab recently was moved out from under the police department's management structure and into an independent local government corporation with its own board.  They're currently one of two cities (Detroit is the other) with a National Institute of Justice grant to study how to prioritize testing rape kit backlogs. (See prior Grits coverage and a website devoted to the grant project.)

Rios estimated that there are about 400,000 untested rape kits sitting around in police department evidence rooms nationwide.


TriggerMortis said...

There are more than 400,000 untested rape kits sitting in storage across the USA:

There are zero untested drug samples...

Our priorities are really screwed up.

FleaStiff said...

Yes, there are unprocessed rape kits galore but zero unprocessed DUI or Pot possession kits, but I must vote "NO" to your conclusion that our priorities are screwed up.

DUIs bring in thousands in revenue to the courts and the cops and the alcohol counselors.

The economics is what it is. We are ones who levy the lab fees and levy the DUI counseling fees.

Crime lab directors don't mind outsourcing the painting of their offices or the cleaning of their carpets, but they don't want to outsource full time career slots.

Anonymous said...

Its here in Florida now where i moved to as well on the news. I believe it may be the economy which has caused shortages in money and may have affected federal grants to police depts and crime labs. I think more money should be spent to convict those of rape per kits first. But seizure of assets etc per drug arrests does allow police agencies and courts etal to make ends meet fiscally. Who said fighting crime or enforcing the law was easy or in this case fair... GTR.

Anonymous said...

Here's the general attitude and lack of forethought from those in charge in Dallas County regarding the backlog of untested Sexual Assault kits:

"Would you want to devote money to test those cases when it’s not going to lead to a judicial conclusion?" asked Dr. Timothy Sliter, chief of physical evidence for the Dallas County crime lab.

("Missed deadline on rape-kit audits renews debate," DMN, By TANYA EISERER and JENNIFER EMILY, 01 June 2012)

Good thing Dr. Jeffrey Barnard is a member of the TFSC and can whitewash these types of comments coming from his own crime lab. God forbid these dismissive attitudes become public.

Anonymous said...

Victimless crimes in the War on Drugs take precedence over rape victims who not only report the crime, but submit the the invasive procedures it takes to recover their assailants' DNA, only to be subjugated to NO IMPORTANCE. Castrate the assholes in charge from the detectives to the governor.

Anonymous said...

What is the real incremental cost of testing these kits?

I've seen numbers all over the map and expect a bit of study/effort would reduce the real cost.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Here's a link to the Dallas News story referenced by 9:59 above.

Re: cost, I think it can vary pretty widely depending on the evidence is available to test. I've seen estimates between $275 (the low end in the 2012 DMN story) and $1,500. Also, outsourcing is more expensive than if crime labs do it in house.

"Red" Merriweather Coast said...

A rape kit isn't just a couple of DNA swabs to test, of course. It involves a lot of evidence collected from the scene. For cases that are out of the statute of limitations, maybe it would be possible to cut costs by only doing a DNA test on swabs and not analyzing the other physical evidence unless there's a hit on CODIS.

It seems to me that the American justice system has a history of marginalizing crimes committed against women. I keep thinking about the Ariel Castro kidnappings in Cleveland. His wife went to the police for help before he kidnapped those young women, but they did very little to help her. She eventually left him, but he went on to do worse things.

Obviously, not every person who commits rape or domestic violence becomes a predator. In fact, that's probably pretty rare. But these predators are possibly the worst kind out there!

Then again, maybe I'm biased because I'm a woman, but I'd put rape and then domestic violence as numbers 2 and 3 after murder.

Jennifer Laurin said...

So how many of these kits correspond to cases in which there was never prosecution, or in which there was prosecution but no conviction? I would love to be able to assume that they've already ascertained that there are no discrepancies between these hits and any convictions obtained, but we know what trouble assuming gets us into. To the extent there aren't discrepancies - i.e. there are hits and they match the identity of individuals convicted through other means - I guess there's some kind of success story to be told about tried and true traditional policing, no? (Not one I would want to accept uncritically, but I'm just sayin' . . . there are more lessons to be gleaned from this.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jennifer, it sounded like they were mainly uploading cases to CODIS where they had never solved the crime. There was much talk about providing "closure" for victims as well as the issue of how to deal with victims who didn't want to revisit the past, were frustrated that they couldn't prosecute the older ones, etc.. Rios didn't present the level of detail you're asking about and implied they hadn't finished the analysis yet to be able to provide it.

Also, from what I could tell, so far they're not yet doublechecking convictions to look for possible innocence cases. That's actually something I want to follow up on for IPOT. I'd like to better understand their criteria for uploading cases to CODIS. There seemed to be only law enforcement folks involved in the case vetting, not criminal defense lawyers or any innocence project people.

I agree there's more to be learned from this process and I'm sure Rios would agree, too. What the FSC heard on Friday was at best a preliminary review.

Anonymous said...

GFB 9:04 AM- The $275 value cited in the article is the cost for serology screening a kit, to determine if there is semen evidence that could be subjected to DNA testing. Per sample DNA tests are generally in the $300-500/sample range. The $1,500 number sounds like a reasonable average per case cost, where there may be several samples in each kit that would be sent for DNA testing. For multiple assailant cases, the number of samples tested would be larger, in order to resolve complex mixtures.

9:55PM -

In the context of the DMN article that is cited, the quote you are objecting to is referring to the fact that in many cases that will be tested under the statute, it is known before the testing is done that the DNA results will not be dispositive. In cases where everyone agrees that sexual contact occurred but one side says it was consensual and the other says it was not consensual, DNA testing isn't going to clarify the legal issues and will not lead to a judicial conclusion. It is a waste of taxpayers' money to do DNA testing in these cases, but the statute mandates that the testing be done regardless. There are other sorts of cases that have been determined by the police investigation to be unfounded. If the police can not certify that a crime was committed, then DNA profiles from that case can not legally be entered into CODIS. The statute mandates testing in these cases, too, which is more wasted tax dollars.

As far as I know, the state has provided no additional money for this testing. Since the testing is mandated, that means that a significant amount of other work is not being done in order to test these kits. It would be one thing if the effort was an efficient, focused effort. But it is clearly a shotgun approach to problem solving with major amounts of wasted effort and wasted money. It is reasonable that people would question the approach, even while agreeing with the goal.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@11:27, fwiw, the Texas Lege last year earmarked $11 million at DPS for testing old rape kits.

Robert Langham said...

At least we know the value of a rape victim to the government: 275.00 to 1500.00.

Here's one I would like addressed: What's the economic impact of a felony conviction on a society?

rodsmith said...

another big question is how many of those tests show the same dna and have attacks that would have been stopped if they had gotten off their asses and tested the first one.

Anonymous said...

To Robert Langham -

You forgot to factor in a number of other governmental costs associated with the investigation and prosecution of rapists: 1) police costs of staff time, materials, supplies, and overhead used to investigate; 2) emergency room costs of staff time, materials, supplies, and overhead in conducting rape exams; 3) victim support services for rape victims; 4) DA costs of staff time, materials, supplies, and overhead in prosecuting rapists; 5) county costs to incarcerate defendants prior to trial; 6) court costs to try defendants; 7) state costs to incarcerate defendants post-conviction.

The total spent by the government per victim far exceeds the $1,500 spent on lab testing. But I suspect you knew that already.

Chris H said...

I would be curious to know the logistics of which rape kits were previously chosen to be tested. I've always assumed that a great proportion of the untested kits were in cases where the identity of the alleged offender was known and weren't tested because the rest of the case came down to he said/she said over consent.

If that's the case, it calls into question the other protections needed in having a DNA database. Mitochondrial DNA especially since you have an identical copy of that DNA with your mother and siblings.

Anonymous said...

why did the lab
report 8,450 kits,
even tho it reviewed 5,651?

Wouldn't that make 1,799 incomplete?

How many women do you know have been circumcised? Now there's a crime against men.
Not only do Drs think it's unimportant, sitcom writers actually think it's funny. (Some consider suicide funny.)


Anonymous said...

To anon 11:27 (Dr. Barnard)-

It's not the forensic analysts job to infer potential judicial conclusions from the evidence they analyze. That's the job of juries.

And true forensic analysts do not consider fiduciary obligations to taxpayers as it relates to the evidentiary items they analyze. The crime analysts are being paid by the taxpayers to NOT consider cost of the analysis. Lab analysts are not to be pressured by outside influences. Forensic analysts are paid to be independent and objective.

That is, unless the forensic analyst shares the same "tunnel-vision" and bias as the prosecutors that they serve. The evidence submitted to the crime lab that can lead to a conviction is analyzed at any price tag. And the evidence that can exculpate a defendant is refused analysis due to the excessive cost to the taxpayer.

It sounds like Mr. Sliter and anon 11:27 are driven more by money rather than science

Anonymous said...

Giving LE unlimited pots of money to spend seems like a bad choice, imho. Doing DNA testing in he-said-she-said cases also seems pretty stupid.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't think they need to test in "he-said she said" cases, 7:24. But neither do I think they should limit testing to unsolved cases. If somebody pleads "not guilty" and is convicted - or even if they originally claimed innocence then plead out to avoid a longer sentence - IMO they need to go ahead and doublecheck the samples to make sure they got the right guy. We've seen too many DNA exonerations in sex assault cases to exclude those scenarios.

FWIW, the NIJ grant Houston got was precisely to develop criteria for what samples need to be tested out of a backlog. I'd guess that, when they're done, it's unlikely the cases where consent is the only issue will be included in the cases they recommend be tested.

Phantom Bureaucrat said...

25 years ago, long before there were databases to compare cases to, kits cost in excess of $5000 each. Most jurisdictions established their own criteria for which kits were tested and which were not, every HPD case where a suspect was charged and denied having sex with the victim being tested. HPD had a committee that made these decisions based on workable leads, solvability factors and whether a complainant was willing to press charges. It is my understanding that HPD required complainants to submit to polygraph tests in order to proceed given the number of false accusations.

If the sole question was consent, there was no need to spend the money on a test, remember that Houston was so hard up in the mid to late 80's that they closed their police academy down to save a few bucks so spending millions on testing made little sense. Now that there are nationwide databases to compare results to and the cost per test has come down, testing more kits makes sense but HPD is far from the worse given the manner in which they initially applied common sense to testing.

Further, out of nearly 10k kits tested, getting so few useable results brings out the question of bang for the buck. If you are a victim of rape, your willingness to spend an endless amount of money in hopes of finding out who it was and getting them convicted, not easy in the best of cases, is markedly different from someone who has to pay the bill. Again, just a hit on a 25 year old case is not typically going to lead to a conviction without a long list of factors working in conjunction.

Anonymous said...

I've always had a problem with extraneous offenses being used in criminal trials, but to use them to deny parole is a different breed of cat.

Anonymous said...

How does one know if the "he said" isn't involved in 10 other "he said:she said" situations? He could be a serial offender. Only if his identity is inputted into a national database would that information come to light.

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:35, it would come up as a "hit" in the basic investigation portion of the matter and the investigators of subsequent arrests or investigations would jump on it like sharks in bloody water. Any time you are arrested for something above a Class C, it leaves a trail.

Anonymous said...

Anon 10:20-

But the statements made from a couple of commenters, including GFB, is that DNA testing in "He said:She said" situations is stupid and a waste of taxpayer money. I would argue that DNA testing in these situations, too, are important in order to find out if the "he said" is a serial offender (or his DNA has been found in an unrelated crime.)

Anonymous said...

Anon 7:51, using that logic, we should all be tested and forced to provide complete biometric data to have on hand in case it coincides with an investigation. The whole idea behind a he said/she said case is that their having sex is not an issue. Since at best DNA only tells us that they had sex (if that, technically it only tells us that a likely match of DNA was discovered on or in someone), if both parties agree that they had sex, why go through the expense and bother for that case?

If it's just as part of a larger fishing expedition, that can be handled in other ways to tie cases together if a serial criminal is suspected. If 10 women accuse him of having unwanted sex and he agreed that he had sex with each of them, testing is not likely to change his defense, nor would it support their claims against him.

Anonymous said...

Anon 6:49 stated, "...using that logic, we should all be tested and forced to provide complete biometric data to have on hand in case it coincides with an investigation..."

This is exactly why there are individual DNA databases for both Convicted Offenders and Arrestees. And, arrestees haven't even been found guilty of anything.

"...If 10 women accuse him of having unwanted sex and he agreed that he had sex with each of them, testing is not likely to change his defense, nor would it support their claims against him..."

Thus, according to anon 6:49, all a serial rapist has to do is declare that he had sex with each female as they present their allegations. Voila! Free to rape as often as he likes. Also, that's assuming that all 10 women come forward with their allegations simultaneously, and they all know the identity of the offender, and the offenses all occurred in a localized region such that the information can make it to the ears of a single or few collaborating detectives following the offender, etc., etc.

I assume, anon 6:49, that you also object to fingerprinting? Or having your photo taken for your driver's license, passports, etc.?

Anonymous said...

I suppose it would depend on the totality of circumstance here, Anons 6:49 and 8:19. Testing "everyone" suspected of a crime is a slippery slope unless sufficient probable cause is developed to test and anyone fool enough to rely on simple denial when faced with multiple accusers gets the time that will likely come his way. A women gets put through the ringer in accusations like this but men get hammered by the courts.