Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Cold case solved in Houston via testing rape kit from HPD backlog

The Houston Chronicle has a story today ("Evidence in teen's 1995 rape leads to new charges," July 13) about a cold rape kase solved by testing a previously untested rape kit among the sizable backlog possessed by the county, making may people wonder if other rapists may have avoided prosecution because of the backlog, which stretches back literally for decades. The article by Anita Hassan opens:
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.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, on Tuesday said the Westbrooks case is an example of how the backlog of untested evidence by HPD's crime lab can and has delayed justice for rape victims.

"What if they (HPD) had done their proper test in 1995?" said Whitmire, who has spoken on the issues concerning untested sexual assault evidence for years. "Maybe the 1995 (case) would have been solved in a timely manner and the 1997 (case) would have never occurred."
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.

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:


Anonymous said...

Have you seen this out of the Dallas Observer?

I thought the Attorneys received fees from the courts.. guess not

aninmateswife said...

Isn't there a statute of limitations that could be missed by waiting so long to test these kits? You finally know who did it, but waited so long to test it there will be no punishment.

Sandy said...

If rape and other sex crimes traditionally victimized men instead of women, I bet all government authorities involved - police, courts, prisons, etc. - would be much more likely to actually get off their mysogynistic butts and do something.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Talk, the court is expected to rule very soon on whether the fees in that case were appropriate. Until then, I have no more to say on the subject now than has already been said in the past. Check that link for more.

aninmateswife, they've much extended the statute of limitations a lot for sex crimes, but for the truly old cases that may well be a factor.

Sandy, that's sometimes true. Sometimes, though, it's because a woman's testimomy by itself is now enough to convict and no DNA evidence is needed if you reflexively believe eyewitnesses. There are lots of reasons those kits might not end up tested.

Greg Jones said...

There's a similar problem with untested rape kits from the Detroit, Michigan, police department. Their lab is now closed, and the Michigan State Police are trying to take over the work, but the lab was left unsecured, and open to vandals, trespassers, critters, and who-knows-what else, so the evidentiary value may be limited.

rodsmith said...

plus let's not forget he had TWO YEARS of extra time and god knows how many others he may or may not have assaulted before finally getting caught again in 1997. Plus i'm pretty sure even in texas they can't go back and restart the clock on 25 YEAR OLD CRIMES no matter what they say.

any so-called charges are just more showboating from idiots who have no business being DA's or anything else important!

Anonymous said...

So many men glorify the depiction of violence towards women. Blaring out their car windows, its a constant anthem. Like a baby with his pacifier, these men have to have their vicious lyrics--constantly. We pretend that this has no effect. Often women prefer these stunted men.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me there is a pretty massive personal injury lawsuit here, esp for the 1997 victim, who could plausibly claim that her rape might have been prevented by more timely examination of the evidence.


Soronel Haetir said...

Also recall that the cost of such testing has come down a lot in the intervening years. In 1995 it may well have made sense to not test the kits when you had no way to link the developed profile with anything else. The chances that the evidence would point to someone with an already known profile would have been pretty remote and the profile, by itself doesn't tell you a great deal. That last isn't quite true, I've seen indications that a full DNA workup can tell you a great deal about the donor's likely ancestry, but for some reason police departments seem extremely reticent to use such information. I recall a New Orleans case where they finally did use such information, it completely changed the suspect category. But even that wouldn't have been available in 1995.

rodsmith said...

good point soronel.

but still would have been better to have done the test and get whatever info you could. Especialy when dealing with a criminal act where you HAVE NO LEADS!

Leejay said...

If the police priorites are such that the test kits are allowed to sit in an evidence freezer for DECADES...why go through the pretense of collecting them in the first place?

Kevin Stouwie said...

So let's see this situation for what it really is: Police and DA's are too busy pandering to MADD and having "No Refusal" weekends, where tons of resources are devoted to catching those who have a blood alcohol content over the legal limit, and thousands of rape victims were never even given the decency of testing their rape kits? Not to mention that at least a few people could be behind bars as convicted "rapists", or are now back out having to be labeled as "sex offenders", based on faulty eye witness testimony.


Anonymous said...

Resources going to equip massive SWAT teams, traffic enforcement and busting pot smokers.

Thomas R. Griffith said...

Hey Grits, appreciate the good-news. Those of us that avoid the H.C. rag. would've never heard about this one.

I have to admit that the input (so-far) makes perfect sense. Even the Anons. and that's not very often. We are given some very good conclusions & excuses to ponder. Ranging from; Statues of Limitations, alleged sexism, nation wide epidemic, free time to rape-pillage & burn, wolf whistles/How you doing?, possible boom for Personal Injury firms, the cost involved, lazy un-detectives, testing just to be testing syndrome, pandering to MADD, the War on Drugs, crooked license plates & basically anything other than concentrating on testing or typing rape kits. *But the taxpayers had no problem paying for kits, hospital fees & storage cost. AND I wonder what ol Andy K. has to say about this snaffu?

Then you have folks like myself that have had personal dealings with the HPD evidence room & the Harris County Exhibits Clerk (Mrs. Mel Vasquez) involving the date 1995. If they (ADA) can plant a firearm in 84 & have her sneak in and destroy it in 95 with no documentation whatsoever that it was ever there, the 95 rape victim is very luck to have someone pick & choose her kit from the lot. She's even luckier that it was even found.

NOTE: C.C.P. 2.21 "Following the Code, allowed me to personally destroy it ('Mystery Gun') and excused the creation of any chain of custody - Motions to Destroy, Method of Destruction & Location of Destruction docs." - Thanks.

Soronel Haetir said...


The reason for collecting them is if you get lucky enough to get a suspect you then have solid evidence left that can tie (or not) that suspect to your evidence. But since DNA can't provide you with an evidence to identity trail (only identity to evidence match), it can still make sense to not test the evidence right away, especially with how sensitive the tests are now and are becoming ever more so. By not testing you also get the advantage of not destroying the evidence now. Perhaps something useful would be obtained, perhaps not, but chances are that in the future some evidence that would not turn up anything now will in the future.

If we ever (shudder) get to a point where everyone is DNA profiled as a matter of course then it would make a huge amount of sense to make such testing a very high priority.

Susan Fenner said...

If they ever do get around to testing those old kits, I'm wondering whether it will make any difference whether someone was ever convicted of the crime. I get the feeling that they will tend to test the ones where no one was convicted. Then they don't have to face up to the fact that a person has been incarcerated falsely.