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State crime labs overwhelmed with more than 10,000 untested rape kits

TALLAHASSEE — The number of untested rape kits sitting in law enforcement evidence rooms in Florida is far worse than authorities had believed.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement on Tuesday confirmed for the first time there are more than 10,000 untested kits throughout the state — and they're not done counting. In December, FDLE will make public the full number as part of a $300,000 survey to identify just how big the backlog is. Up until now, the problem was only estimated as being in the "thousands."

"This actual number could change after the survey results are final," FDLE Assistant Commissioner Jennifer C. Pritt told a Florida Senate subcommittee with budget authority over FDLE.

Evidence buried in those untested kits could not only impact potentially thousands of unsolved sexual assaults but also could help solve other crimes in unrelated cases with the same suspects' DNA or uncover serial rapists.

Yet, even if all of the untested kits were sent to the state for testing, FDLE's crime lab system is so overloaded it could not process those kits in any timely fashion without millions of dollars for extra workers or to pay to outsource the work, agency officials said.

Not included in the new report are 1,500 rape kits that have been submitted to FDLE by local law enforcement agencies for processing since January for older sexual assault cases amid growing media attention over untested kits. About one-third of those cases have been processed; the rest are being earmarked for outsourcing to private labs at a cost of $904 per kit, Pritt said.

Why kits stay on shelves for years — even decades — is still being analyzed. But Pritt said some legitimate reasons could have included victims no longer wanting an investigation to continue, a case is not being pursued by prosecutors or a suspect has already pled guilty.

A big reason is simply due to technology.

"There are many of these kits that may be sitting on shelves that existed prior to even DNA analysis," Pritt said of kits that are between five and 25 years old.

Some state officials have been stepping up pressure to test older rape kits to collect DNA samples from as many suspects as they can to be able to compare it to other crimes. In some cases, DNA from one case can identify matches in others criminal cases or identify serial rapists. In September, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi held a news conference in Tampa saying the DNA from older sexual assault kits has the potential to solve cold cases and lock up more sexual predators.

The state does not require all rape kits collected by local law enforcement to be tested. Which kits are sent to the state crime lab is entirely the authority of local law enforcement agencies.

Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell testified before the Senate committee that all kits need to be tested, even if a victim is not seeking prosecution for whatever reason. She said the DNA is too valuable to help identify other crimes.

"If there is an active rapist in your community, we want to know about it," she said, adding that a victim's identity could still be protected.

But testing all of those older kits could come at a substantial cost to the state. If all of the older kits were outsourced for testing at $900 per kit, as it costs now, it would total $9 million according to rough estimates Pritt gave the committee.

The crime lab system cannot handle processing all of the older kits as well as keeping up with its current workload. For the last six years, the lab has been besieged by frequent employee turnover, and increasing workloads. FDLE has been struggling to process 2,400 requests per year for current sexual assault kits. Last year, FDLE had to outsource 450 kits, said David Coffman, the agency's director of forensic services.

Coffman said if there is a bigger surge of older kits that need to be analyzed, the agency would not be able to handle the increase without outsourcing or adding staff.

It takes 88 days on average for FDLE to process all biology and DNA requests, according to the agency's annual performance report provided Gov. Rick Scott and the state's elected cabinet. That's up from an 81-day average last year.

Pritt said the FDLE can handle up to 3,500 requests per year, but only if it can get pay raises to retain its current work force, get a yet to be disclosed amount processing the older kits, and have funding for upkeep on its equipment.

The number of untested kits was definitely a surprise to state Sen. Joe Negron, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Criminal and Civil Justice. Negron said he wasn't expecting it to be over 10,000.

"I'm committed to making sure every kit needed to be tested is done so in a prompt manner," Negron said after the hearing.

But Negron bristled at Pritt during the meeting for suggesting the agency may have to outsource testing on the older kits.

He said the crime lab is one of the most essential functions of the FDLE and should be handled by the agency. He would rather increase funding to beef up the crime lab and attack the backlog instead of outsourcing something so important.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.

State crime labs overwhelmed with more than 10,000 untested rape kits 11/03/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 3, 2015 10:29pm]
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