Live 5 Investigates: Tracking Rape Kits

A sexual assault kit is created by medical professionals in order to preserve any DNA evidence of the assault, including semen, hair and saliva.
A sexual assault kit is created by medical professionals in order to preserve any DNA evidence of the assault, including semen, hair and saliva.

CHARLESTON, SC (WCSC) - Data collected from police and sheriff's offices in the Lowcountry indicate a third of rape kits collected over the last ten years were not submitted for testing.

There are several reasons the kits may not be sent for DNA processing, but advocates across the country have been pushing for nationwide reform when it comes to processing such evidence.

A sexual assault kit is created by medical professionals in order to preserve any DNA evidence of the assault, including semen, hair and saliva.

If the victim wants to press charges, the kit would be picked up at the hospital by the agency investigating that case.

But if a victim is not sure about pressing charges or wants more time to think about it, the kit is stored at the Charleston County Sheriff's Office.

Right now there are more than 70 anonymous kits in their evidence refrigerators.

"These cases should touch everybody's heart," said CCSO Forensic Investigator Jason Riley. "Any kind of sexual assault, rape cases. You do think about it. It's important to want to know more about that case so you can move that case along."

Deputies say it's hard knowing the DNA in those anonymous boxes may hold the only key to catching a rapist or serial rapist.

But they do not send anonymous rape kits to SLED for testing.

"It's difficult because it could be someone who's been a repeat offender," said Capt. Roger Antonio. "But you can't just randomly enter a bunch of kits anonymous knowing a victim doesn't want to prosecute and then you've got a guy inside CODIS that hasn't been convicted or even accused formally of a crime."

CCSO stores anonymous kits for at least a year while the victim decides what to do.

Other cases involve known victims who are choosing to come forward.

Antonio said DNA is especially important evidence if there was an unknown attacker or a child victim.

"Children a lot of times can't vocalize what has happened to them, so law enforcement relies on evidence," he said.

But just because a victim follows through with an exam and has a rape kit collected doesn't mean it will be tested.

We asked local sheriff offices and police departments how many sexual assault kits they've collected over the past ten years and how many were actually sent to be tested and processed by SLED or any other lab.

Some agencies like CCSO track evidence including DNA kits with barcodes, and were able to quickly provide those numbers.

Other agencies just started digitally tracking evidence a few years ago and could not give us ten years of data.

We quickly learned different agencies have different policies, or no policy at all, for handling and tracking sexual assault kits.

The numbers we collected show about 33 percent of all kits were not processed.

One reason is if the case was "unfounded."

"Our interpretation of that is that it could be a he said/she said or he said/he said or she said/she said," said Heather Woolwine, Board Chair of People Against Rape in Charleston.

"What we've heard from our law enforcement partners is that the kits are not helpful in that situation because it doesn't show consent," she explained. "What we would offer on the other side of that is: What happens if you test one kit, a second kit, third kit, fourth kit and find out here's this same individual who's consistently involved in he said/she said? Maybe there's something more here that law enforcement could prosecute."

Agencies may also decide not to test a kit if a victim won't cooperate, investigators think it was a false report or if the suspect pleads guilty before DNA is even needed.

"Every kit should be tested. Every kit should be tracked so we know what happens with those kits," said Woolwine.

There's no state law guiding law enforcement about when or why to test a kit or requiring agencies to track them.

A law proposed this year would have required quarterly updates from SLED about rape kits it receives and created a sexual assault evidence tracking and reporting commission.

"We were disappointed the legislation didn't make it through this year, but are hopeful," said Woolwine. "I don't know that it's a matter of if. I like to believe it's a matter of when."

"If there's any kind of proposal to expedite the processing of it, of course that's advantageous to us and we would support it," Antonio said.

In a violent case or one with an unknown rapist, Antonio said investigators can ask the state to expedite DNA testing.

We asked SLED if the agency had a stance on whether every kit should be tested regardless of circumstance of case.

"The short answer is no," said Special Agent Thom Berry. "However, based on the case information, it will change how we prioritize it in the assignment que for testing. If it is determined that no crime was committed, any profiles developed from the tests will not be eligible for upload to CODIS, per FBI rules."

Our numbers only reflect victims who came forward and went through with an exam.

Woolwine says the actual number of sexual assaults in our community is inevitably much higher.

"Most rapists haven't just done it one time. Most rapists have done it more than once. If we could do a better job connecting those dots, we could do a better job holding people accountable," she said.

Copyright 2018 WCSC. All rights reserved.