State auditor releases report on rape-kit backlog

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The state Auditor’s Office said Dec. 6 that New Mexico leads the nation in the number of untested rape kits.

State Auditor Tim Keller said at a news conference in Albuquerque that there are 254 untested rape kits per 100,000 residents in the state, nearly double that of Michigan, which has the second most untested kits when measured on a per capita basis.

Keller announced the findings of an audit conducted this summer.

The audit found two key reasons that led to the backlog of rape kits: “the decision of some law enforcement agencies not to test all kits as they were received, and shortcomings in the systems used to track and monitor the testing of kits.”

“While guns, drugs and money tend to be subject to specialized handling procedures, Sexual Assault Evidence Kits are not,” according to the audit.

Currently, there are 5,302 untested rape kits, some of which date to 1988. About 70 percent, or 3,476, of the untested kits are from the Albuquerque Police Department. Another 472 stem from cases in the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.

Keller’s office audited eight police departments this summer and reviewed the policies of others to determine what caused the backlog.

Albuquerque police have a forensics lab to process rape kits. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office also uses Albuquerque’s crime lab. All other agencies in the state send their rape kits to the state Department of Public Safety’s crime lab.

After police receive a report of sexual assault, the victim chooses whether to let a nurse collect evidence such as saliva, semen and blood by swabbing the victim’s body. That evidence is then stored in what police call a rape kit. The kit can also include undergarments or other clothes that may contain the victim’s or the perpetrator’s DNA. The police agency then keeps the evidence for DNA analysis.

If DNA testing is done, the results can be checked against a state database of other sex crimes, some of which may have an identified suspect or even someone who’s been convicted of a rape. In New Mexico, Katie’s Law requires jailers to obtain a DNA sample from everyone arrested on suspicion of a felony.

Greg Fouratt, a former secretary of the Department of Public Safety, revealed the number of untested rape kits last year. After that, some law enforcement officials said crime labs were understaffed, underfunded or did not have the technology to process rape kits.

Fouratt, acting after complaints by advocates for rape victims, sent out a survey last year asking the state’s law enforcement agencies how many untested rape kits they had. Most responded. Fouratt didn’t ask why police agencies had not tested the evidence for DNA, and the agencies didn’t provide reasons.

The state Legislature this year allocated $1.2 million to the state Department of Public Safety to hire more lab technicians and expand its crime lab in Santa Fe to process about 1,400 untested rape kits.

In July, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry announced the city would spend $200,000 to start processing the evidence. He’s also hired three retired detectives to review some of the sexual assault cases with untested rape kits.

The Santa Fe New Mexican is a sister-paper of The Taos News. Contact Garcia at (505) 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter @ujohnnyg.

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