One Reporter’s Investigation Reveals Confusion and Emotional Dilemma Surrounding America’s Untested Rape Kits
There are thousands of untested rape kits sitting in police departments all across the country, each one representing a specific woman and a horrific experience in her life. While activists are pressing for this evidence to be tested, no consensus exists as to how or even whether to notify the victim when positive results come back. Reporter Jessica Contrera explores this issue in a recent feature article she wrote for The Washington Post. We are fortunate to have Ms. Contrera as our guest today to speak with Listen, Ladies host Maryalice Aymong.
The interview has been condensed and edited. To listen to the whole interview download Listen, Ladies in Itunes
Listen, Ladies (LL): Jessica, your piece starts out with your standing at the Virginia Beach Police Department with a police lieutenant surrounded by boxes stacked six or seven high. Explain to our listeners what you are looking at and how the boxes came to be sitting in that room.
Jessica Contrera (JC): Virginia Beach was just one locality across the country that in recent years has decided to test its untested rape kits. You may have heard of the rape kit backlog before; it’s been in the news a number of times. There are many different reasons for it. Some police departments, low on resources, low on manpower, or according to some, just negligent, were not conducting due diligence to make sure all aspects of rape and sexual assault were being properly investigated. Part of those investigations often involves rape kits. After someone reports a rape she usually goes to a specialized nurse’s office or hospital. The nurse takes swabs and conducts really invasive tests on her body. That evidence is collected and stored, but until last year there was no national standard governing what should be done with all the untested kits. Some police departments habitually sent their kits to the lab while some said, “We only send it to the lab if we have no idea who the suspect is. Still others said they let their individual detectives make those calls. So the protocols were really not consistent across the country, and that led to backlogs of many different sizes across the US. As I was researching this, Virginia’s kits were about to come back, and because I live in DC and was pretty close by, I figured I would start my investigation there. Virginia Beach was the first municipality in Virginia to go through the process, which is why I ended up at their storage facility after all the kits had come back, just looking at the magnitude of them.
LL: I was surprised. Getting a rape kit done is an invasive procedure, and I would think that many of the women who have experienced a sexual assault and then had the procedure expect her kit is going to be tested, no?
JC: Absolutely. You go to the doctor, you get a test, you expect it to go to the lab. I have an uncle who works in environmental safety, and he was shocked by the story because when he tests to see if people have contaminated water, the tests go to the lab, they come back, and they go and tell the person right away. It just seems like a real lack of care. If you’re in a police department and you have tons and tons of evidence to test—not just about rape, but murders and all kinds of horrible crime—you say the reality is we have to prioritize. So it depends on how you look at it. But regardless, I don’t think it was very clear to most people what was happening.
LL: I think that that’s something that came up in Virginia Beach. Before we dive into that specific case, I just want to lay the groundwork a little bit in terms of the different philosophies of how to move forward. Can you explain why it is difficult to decide what to do? I mean why not just test the kits and reach out to the women and say this is what we found or didn’t find?
JC: Not all these kits are going to mean that all of a sudden the police can move forward on the cases. That’s because to be in the national DNA database, you have to already committed a crime. Certainly, if they get a kit back and it has some information, they look over the old police file and they realize, You know what? Either we didn’t do our jobs before or something has changed now, and we want to reach out to this victim and tell her what’s going on.” Everyone agrees that you need to do that in a very sensitive way. The point of discrepancy here is that what happens if a kit comes back and the police and the prosecutors look at it and say nothing has changed in this case, we really still can’t move forward. The question is do you still reach out to that person and say, “We just wanted to let you know your kit has been tested?” Some people say,”absolutely, I mean that was that woman’s body in that kit; she deserves to know especially because you didn’t do your job before and get it tested. She deserves to know it’s been tested now even if it doesn’t have good information. Other people say absolutely not. Why would you call someone up and remind her of what was likely the worst day of her life when you have no good information to share with her? All across the country every jurisdiction that goes through this testing has to answer this question. Whom do they notify and how? Is it better to make a phone call, send a letter, do it in person? Every state in the country, every city that has gone through this offers a different example of how to handle it. Everybody is trying to figure out which way works best.
LL: You mentioned that Virginia Beach was dealing with 300 or so kits that were sent off for testing. When the information came back, how helpful was it? What kind of information did they get? Did they open up new cases?
JC: They wound up sending 344 kits that they ended up sending to the lab, only 49 of which came back with hits. That means that for nearly 300 women, no match between the rapist’s DNA and a criminal in the database could be found. Nothing had probably changed. Should they be contacted or not? And in the 49 cases in which there were DNA matches, the police and the prosecutors should comb through each file and try to figure out whether there’s something they missed. What they found was in a lot of cases, yes. So you can really see how much has changed in the world of policing and how you treat the victim of a crime, especially a victim of a sex crime. Today we know the victim may not be able to report the story from beginning to end right away. The story might change a little, but that doesn’t mean that the victim is lying. It means that she was traumatized and that her brain is not working. In some old case files, you read that the victim was “uncooperative” or “changed her story.” You see a tone not of compassion and understanding but of “This person is unhelpful to her own investigation.” There was one case in particular where the file said something along the lines of “This victim never wants to hear from us again,” but in which a detective did call the woman to report that they’d confirmed that the man who raped her was indeed the man she told them about originally only for the woman to say that she never did stipulate that she didn’t want to be notified of such information. It’s depressing. You have people who are trying to clean up this mess, but you can see how much cleaning up there is to do.
Top photo: Will Strawser for The Washington Post