Failure to Test is a Failure of Justice

by Diane Dimond on August 1, 2011

Untested Rape Kits Add to Victim's Humiliation

The evidence had been there all along. It had been sitting on a shelf inside a cold storage facility at the Houston Police Department for 12 years. After a determined detective tracked it down and sent it off to the lab for testing the state of Texas realized it had a found a serial rapist.

The criminal’s name is Roland Ali Westbrooks and his story highlights why every state in the union should make testing of backlogged rape kits a top priority.

For more than two decades law enforcement has had the ability to take even the tiniest specks of evidence from a rape victim – bodily fluids, stray hairs, fingernail scrapings – and match the DNA findings to information stored in a national data base called CODIS.

Every time a rape kit is processed the DNA print is supposed to be entered into CODIS. And the reason for this is simple: Rapists rape repeatedly. They hardly ever have just one victim.

200 Thousand U.S. Rapes Reported Each Year

One study on serial offenders puts the average number of a rapist’s victims at seven while another study puts it at 11. To put this in perspective, realize that if we get just one of these perps off the street we’ve prevented several future crimes. Every year in America there are roughly 200 thousand reported rapes and it is not just women who are attacked. 10% of all rape victims are men.

The first time we know Roland Ali Westbrooks struck was in August 1995. It was a nighttime home invasion and his victim was a complete stranger, a teenager girl alone in her bedroom. Houston police say as he put a pillow over the 16 year olds face he threatened to kill her if she screamed. The girl reported the attack immediately and submitted to a complete rape examination.

Serial Rapist Roland Ali Westbrooks

Like tens of thousands of other rape kits nationwide her evidence package was never processed and no one was ever arrested for her brutal assault.

After a cold case detective re-opened the teen’s case earlier this year and ordered the DNA in her kit to finally be processed, her rapist was identified as Ronald Westbrooks. The good news was that he was already in jail! The bad news was that Westbrooks was in prison because he had been convicted of another rape – a crime that occurred in 1997 – two years after the attack on the teenager. That attack might never have taken place if the 16 year olds rape kit had been tested in a timely fashion. Police suspect Westbrooks left more victims and are investigating that now.

DNA Lab in Houston

To be sure states have made some progress in winnowing down their backlog of rape kits. When I first wrote about this topic in 2008 there were 400,000 bundles of untested evidence. Today, the best estimates put the national number at about 180 thousand. But that’s still way too many.

Sometimes lab work isn’t necessary as police have already gotten a confession or the victim withdraws the complaint. But in too many other cases it becomes a matter of indifference, inconvenience or finances. Each test costs about $1,500.

In most jurisdictions it is still up to the discretion of the investigating detective whether to order up a full lab analysis of a rape kit. Usually the victim is never told whether her evidence has been processed or relegated to some shelf to gather dust.

I can think of no other crime where police have definitive evidence of a crime and fail to process it. I think it is unconscionable.

CODIS Data System Holds All the Clues

Information from these kits, entered into CODIS, would likely mean numerous outstanding sex crimes could be solved. The perpetrator could be identified, taken off the streets or slapped with a longer prison sentence if they are already behind bars like Roland Westbrooks. More importantly, victims could finally feel a sense of justice.

It’s already happening in Texas. The popular Texas-based blog Grits for Breakfast reports that when “Tarrant County tested their entire backlog they identified five serial rapists by matching the results to CODIS.” Imagine – five dangerous criminals were scooped up just by testing evidence that was already there!

May I be so blunt as to ask, “What the heck are we waiting for?” And don’t tell me it’s a matter of money. The money spent on processing these kits would be far less than what we would have to pay out to investigate and prosecute these rapists’ future crimes.

The Evidence is Sitting There

I call for a nationwide initiative to examine every relevant kit. Let’s get every state to dedicate one group of lab technicians to examine the most recent kits so as to stop currently active rapists. A second group should examine the oldest kits with an eye on the ones that might come up against a statute of limitations problem. Let’s get that information into CODIS and see how many more perps we can get off the streets.

The perfect tool is already sitting there if we would just use it!

Anybody with me?

 

 

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane August 1, 2011 at 3:51 pm

ABQ Journal Reader Joan Vogel writes:

“I just read your article “A Weapon Against Serial Rapists” in the Saturday Albuquerque Journal. It seems to me that there are a couple of possible solutions to the lack of DNA testing of evidence packages.

If a daughter is raped and evidence is collected, why can’t her parents be given the option of paying the $1500 to have the evidence tested? If they cannot afford it themselves shouldn’t they be allowed to have fund raisers to help defray those costs? Aren’t there already charitable funds set up to help victims of crimes? Couldn’t some of those funds be earmarked to pay for the testing? Why in the world must the cost of processing these evidence packages only be paid by government agencies that are already strapped for cash? There could be safeguards set in place to make sure that the testing is fair and untainted by the victim and/or the victim’s family or friends; the testing would be done by the proper agencies with no corruption of the chain of evidence.

Is this too much common sense to be workable in our broken system of justice?

Reply

Diane August 1, 2011 at 3:56 pm

Why, Joan, I think that’s a great stopgap idea. I use the word “stopgap” because, frankly, our government is supposed to keep us safe from harm and from the criminal element that walks among us – not us~! That’s one of the reasons we pay taxes – for public safety.
That said, I think your idea of having the victims family come up with the money is a good one – as long as they use an approved DNA lab to process the rape kit, one that makes the CODIS network feel comfortable in accepting their findings.
Hey, Joan – sure you don’t want to run for office? You make a lot of sense!
Thanks for writing,
Diane

Reply

Diane August 1, 2011 at 3:53 pm

ABQ Journal Reader A.P. Martinez writes:

“Just read your article. I like to think that I made a dent in citizenship when I was working. At age 75, have discovered that today’s person has nearly NO moral fiber and if the truth were to be known–would rather have the office mail the paycheck while they stay home!!! No one really has the fiber to complete the job at hand.

Today’s society just wants to coast along. The newspaper is full of congressman, lawyers, policemen, teachers and many more professions going soft and bad. All most want to do is 8 to 5 and I’m out of here. Our children are becoming a losing generation. Parents nowhere to be found. Everyone watching TV and thinking they will get the break that Oprah got. NOT WILLING TO WORK.

Thank you for your articles. I really enjoy all. God Bless You in your work.”

Reply

Diane August 2, 2011 at 9:11 am

Twitter Follower Elizabeth Kelley (Criminal Defense Lawyer, Legal Commentator, Host of “Celebrity Court”) wrote:

“Our criminal justice system should pay attention to the old saying: “an ounce of prevention…” Great piece –”

Reply

Cynthia Sinclair August 2, 2011 at 2:02 pm

I never heard so many dumb and/or sexist excuses not to prosecute rapists in my life and I fully agree with you. While living in CA, I managed to ward off an attempt by someone living in my apt complex and get to the police. They threw me out, stating I was crazy (no explanation.) A week later, same guy was arrested for attempted rape. I was witness to the screams, the violence, but not the actual attempt. Offered to be a witness, was refused because I was considered ‘biased’ due to my earlier ‘complaint.’ Called police station to ask when the guy would be out of jail, was told it would be a while because there had been an outstanding warrant for him. – Now if they had checked this instead of telling me I was crazy the week before, it would have prevented the incident that landed him in jail. He was eventually released due to lack of evidence. Sure there is lack of evidence, when they won’t take witness statements. On top of this, they told him that I had been ‘complaining’ about him while he was sitting in jail. You know, the good old boy’s club. So first thing he did when he got out of jail was come after me for going to the police about him and threaten me. I had to move as a threatened crime witness. I asked for help from the state under the Victim-Witness program. The cops wrote that I was the problem, not the guy. Now the guy had a criminal record 2 inches thick and 2 other warrants out for his arrest at this time. I was a problem for complaining about this. Hired a lawyer who told me to sue the cops for defamation. I’m sure you get the point….It is not just rape kits they won’t explore. They won’t take evidence, they stigmatize those who try to help and in addition – in the above situation – persecuted me by riling up the offender. Apparently no one believes in being a Good Samaritan anymore. People who go to the cops for help become suspects themselves. Well, hopefully it is not so bad everywhere, but it seems to be. Sorry for the length of this, but this is a disgrace.

Reply

Sarah August 3, 2011 at 1:37 am

When I was raped, I didn’t have the courage to go to the hospital and have a kit done; I didn’t tell anyone it happened for over three years. But I would hope that if I had gone through that process, the police would have at least done their duty and tested the evidence I went through hell to collect for them in order to catch the person who raped me. I live in Houston, and I wrote to Mayor Annise Parker telling her how concerned I am about this rape kit backlog. She wrote me a personal letter back, assuring me that it is a priority for her and the city. That doesn’t make me feel much better. It makes me want to hold a huge fundraiser at $1500 a table, and make sure to tell everyone that the table they’re sitting at just allowed one rape kit to be tested. It’s a lovely little fantasy of mine.

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Linda Kelly August 6, 2011 at 8:33 pm

Diane, I am a SANE (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner) practicing in Baltimore County. I would love to share the story that happened here in Baltimore County (not the city) a few years ago. 30 yr. old cold cases were solved – an amazing story with victims who came to court to give their victim impact statements. CBS 48 Hours had previously done a story on the perp, Alphonso Hill and the one victim who was able to have a conviction 12 years after her rape, Laura Neuman. Google this. I guarantee you will be intrigued to hear what happened in Baltimore County because a doc was a “pack rat” 30 years ago. Alphonso would have gotten out of prison in a few years if not for the cold case work by Balto. County detectives using CODIS. An amazing story that should inspire other jurisdictions!

Reply

Diane August 7, 2011 at 9:19 am

please write me at didimond@verizon.net if you have a story to tell! DD

Reply

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