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In case we needed another reminder about the importance of rape-kit testing, serial rapist Dwayne Wilson was sentenced to life last week in Ohio. Already a known pedophile, Wilson was convicted of seven counts of rape after his DNA matched rape kit evidence relating to assaults on four women in Cleveland in the 1990s. Wilson, who the judge called “the worst of the worst,” will be eligible for parole in 110 years.
But, the most shocking part of the story is that when he was initially indicted last October, he was just days away from being released from prison, where he was serving five years for sexual battery (read the full story). That means that evidence from a decades old rape kit prevented a convicted pedophile from walking back onto the same streets where he physically forced women and girls into his car and raped them at knifepoint.
The fact is that testing backlogged rape kits takes sexual predators off our streets now. Getting rape kits to laboratories is not only morally right to help bring justice and closure to victims, but an important public safety issue.
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In virtually every city where a concerted effort has been undertaken to reduce the backlog, offenders have been identified and indicted. As of January 2015, a government pilot program in Detroit tested 2,000 kits that led to 15 convictions, according to a White House press release. Scott Berkowitz, president of Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network told Forensic Magazine that rapists are frequently repeat offenders making evidence in rape kits extremely valuable. “Rape tends to be a serial offense,” he said. “So, if you can identify and convict one person that might be preventing numerous future crimes.”
Last month, Vice President Biden announced $41 million to help reduce the backlog that White House officials estimate at 400,000 kits nationwide. The federal money is in addition to the reauthorized Debbie Smith Act that guarantees $600 million in funding through 2019. Unfortunately, even more is needed.
Last February, the City of Houston completed a $6 million initiative to test all of its kits dating back to the 1980s, leading to 29 new indictments. By combining backlogged kits with other DNA evidence not related to sexual assaults, the city only paid $453 per kit, which is an astonishing low price. At this basement bottom price per kit, testing the nation’s backlog is $181 million investment, well within the government's $600 million.
The real problem is in the legwork. Once the results are in, labs still have to examine and analyze the results, and law enforcement agencies have to find the resources to mount full investigations into new leads that can cost much more than the testing itself. “You’re not only providing for the cost of testing the kits,” said Ramit Plushnick-Masti, of the Houston Forensic Science Center, “but the cost of having the resources internally to take [cases] to the next level and that’s where there was a lot of expense.” She said the Houston center had to make sure “resources in house” could finish the reviews once new results came back from the lab.
The Ohio rape kit project, which began in 2011, tested almost 7,000 backlogged rape kits, which led to 270 indictments, according to a release by Ohio Attorney General's office yesterday. One out of every three backlogged rape kits came back as hits in the FBI criminal justice DNA database.Thankfully, one of those kits held DNA evidence from Dwayne Wilson, which after decades locked somewhere in a storage room, kept Wilson locked up and unable to prey on other victims.
We know that testing backlogged rape kits works, and that it’s expensive, and that it’s a difficult project. We know that rape kits hold powerful evidence that can no longer be ignored from victims whose lives will never be the same. What we might never know is how many thousands of innocent women these projects actually save.