A sexual assault kit from the Oregon State Police Forensic Laboratory. (Photo: Courtesy of Angela Williamson)

Editor’s Note: In this series “Rape Kits in America,” Forensic Magazine dives into the issues within the pile of sexual-assault evidence that has been stored on crime lab and police department shelves for decades, even as some serial offenders go free. Part One looked at the forensic difficulties at the microscopic level of sexual assault. Part Two looks at how matches in the national database may just end up “sitting in drawers”—but a federal initiative is trying to mandate investigative rigor.

Testing alone isn’t enough. Thousands of rape kits get analyzed for DNA profiles, which get uploaded into the national DNA database CODIS to look for offenders. Often, they do match somebody already in the system, and authorities could be well on their way to prosecuting a violent criminal—a serial rapist, or even a serial killer.

But the system doesn’t always work that smoothly. A CODIS “hit” only means the beginning of an investigation. Forensic Magazine has reported how some agencies don’t have the funding, staffing or resources to follow up on the promising DNA leads. In fact, eliminating the backlog in many jurisdictions simply means moving them forward to another investigative bottleneck. But a federal initiative through the Office of Justice Programs called the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) is attempting to mandate complete investigations in the jurisdictions where it holds sway. Whether it will turn the tide on decades of deferred justice remains to be seen.

“It’s great you get money to test all these kits—but what happens afterward?” said Angela Williamson, senior policy advisor for forensics at OJP, who heads SAKI. “That’s one of the main things SAKI has changed.”


CODIS hits are a key lead in an investigation—it means there is a highly likely matching identity to a rapist, right on file in the national DNA database.

But it is just the beginning of the work. Detectives still need to put together a full investigation, the logistics of the suspect’s whereabouts, the means and opportunity, the testimony of the victim and other witnesses, and all the other details to complete a prosecutor’s case. Sometimes this has to happen years or even decades after the crime.

And sometimes, nothing happens at all.

In October, Forensic Magazine told the story of Akron—one of many major cities in Ohio with a relatively high CODIS “hit” rate. Local police had a significant backlog of 1,432 kits—which produced a startling 594 hits, at a rate of 41 percent. (Nationally CODIS hit rates are generally between 20 and 25 percent.) The Akron police said they were eager to follow up on the promising leads—but there was only one part-time officer available to organize the “hits.” Otherwise, the money and staffing limits meant the CODIS “hits” were simply statistics.

Between 400 and 500 of the potential case-cracking matches were sitting on the shelves, the Akron police said at the time.

“They’re just sitting here,” Lt. David Whiddon told Forensic Magazine.

And Akron is not alone. Sgt. Jim Markey, a retired Phoenix Police Department sexual assault investigator, who is an expert on clearing and investigating cold cases from “the backlog,” told Forensic Magazine that most agencies don’t even have policies of what to do when a DNA sample hits in CODIS from a rape kit.

“I know jurisdictions where CODIS hits are sitting in drawers,” said Markey. “A lot of it is, ‘we don’t have the resources’—and a lot of it is ‘we don’t know what to do.’”

“There’s just no central tracking system for all this information—that’s the problem,” added Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, a non-profit group that advocates for reforms to sexual assault investigation. “There are different levels, from functional to dysfunctional.”

But no one has an estimate for how many CODIS hits are sitting in those drawers, since every police department, and detective, has different investigation methods.


SAKI, begun in 2015, endeavors to place structure and requirements on the federal funding to eliminate the untested “backlog” of rape kits. Williamson told Forensic Magazine she had seen other sites with hundreds of hits burying investigators underneath a pile of information they can’t use, like in Akron.

“We do have sites that have hundreds coming back,” she said. “We don’t want an Akron to happen, and we definitely have sites that have similar issues, and we’re working with them all to figure that out—and also to make sure that, going forward, it doesn’t happen again.”

Grantees at the first SAKI meeting in 2015. (Photo: Courtesy of Angela Williamson)

Forty-one SAKI sites are currently getting federal funding to test and investigate their rape kits. That includes 16 states, 17 cities, seven counties and one multi-county jurisdiction. Overall, SAKI has inventoried about 42,000 rape kits nationally, sent almost 19,000 for testing and produced more than 2,000 CODIS hits, according to the latest counts from June. (Since SAKI’s inception in 2015, the total funding awarded has been approximately $111 million.)

All those sites can only use half of the SAKI funds to test the backlogged kits. The other half has to be set aside for dealing with the testing results, said Williamson.  

“We limit the funding for testing to 50 percent of the award amount,” she said. “That way we don’t have sites doing all the testing, then having no money and no staff to follow up on the CODIS hits—because we know it’s a big problem.”

The difference may potentially be seen by comparison with Akron’s neighbors in Ohio.

Cuyahoga County, which encompasses the state’s largest city, Cleveland, has been funded by SAKI since 2015. Officials point to a string of successes there—even if it was decades after some of the rape kits were collected.

The Ohio Attorney General announced they finished clearing their rape-kit backlog of 14,000 pieces of evidence in early October.

Cleveland had both the most kits in Ohio, and the highest CODIS hit rate. The 4,418 kits from the state’s largest city produced 2,027 hits—a rate of about 46 percent, according to the AG’s results.

But in Cuyahoga County, the $2 million SAKI federal funding dedicated just to rape kits over three years was also used for pursuing prosecutions, in addition to the DNA kit testing. Accordingly, 620 individuals have been indicted from the completion of parts of the backlog. That figure includes 127 John Does who have only been identified by DNA profile, and who aren’t in CODIS by name. It also includes a reported 437 serial rapists, including a convicted rapist named Nathan Ford whose DNA has appeared in 17 separate sexual assault kits in Ohio. Currently serving a sentence of more than two centuries in state prison, Ford was also linked to another rape—from a rape kit in Akron, they found. Two other John Does were eventually tracked down—including Jonas Rhodes, who was linked to seven rape kits cleared from the backlog, according to SAKI.


Of course, the vast majority of the thousands of law enforcement agencies in America are not SAKI sites. The Akron Police Department is one of them, an agency that has garnered enough support from the state to get through its “backlog” of untested kits—but where are aren’t enough personnel to follow up on the results.

Williamson said she has seen similar problems in other parts of the country.

“A CODIS hit comes back and then it gets filed and someone’s going to come back and pick it up later on—and it never happens, because something else keeps happening,” she said.

Markey and Knecht gave a talk to Cuyahoga County officials back six years ago, shortly before the scope of the thousands of the rape kits stockpiled on shelves became realized locally. Markey warned the police investigators and administrators they would see an influx of CODIS hits—and a backlog of work from years past, when victims may have moved, or witnesses’ memories could be less vivid.

“We experienced it in Phoenix—I know it’s going to happen to you,” said Markey. “Get ready; it’s going to come.”

Angela Williamson, senior policy advisor for forensics at the Office of Justice Programs and head of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, speaks at a SAKI grantees meeting last year. (Photo: Courtesy of Angela Williamson)

Williamson said prioritization of the hits can be a key investigative reality where staffing is tight, at SAKI sites and elsewhere, when CODIS hits keep piling up.

“We help them, and even send experts to their sites, to help them figure out what to address first ... How to proceed with the case once the CODIS hit comes back,” Williamson said.

“You do have to prioritize—you can’t address every one at once,” added Knecht. “It’s like, how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. You pick up one case, and you look at it.”

But some states have also begun to pass laws requiring full tracking of what the kit results are—and where they could be acted upon.

The Joyful Heart Foundation in its initiative to “End the Backlog” has been lobbying for “comprehensive statewide rape kit reform” that includes following how the evidence is eventually acted upon. To date, only Texas has enacted the “comprehensive” reform as called for by the groups—though three other states have proposed measures to do so: New Jersey, Wisconsin and Massachusetts, according to Joyful Heart.


However, previous attempts to mandate tracking and accountability have failed to get traction over the advent of DNA evidence and the last quarter-century.

California introduced a “CODIS Hit Outcome Project” (CHOP) that was intended to have a statewide tracking of forensic evidence. The program was created by the California Department of Justice in 2009, The bill was proposed by a state senator in early 2016—but has apparently lost momentum. Several onlookers said the program never caught on, since it was never made mandatory. 

“CHOP was a step in the right direction when it was to be mandatory,” said Rock Harmon, a retired Alameda County prosecutor who helped set up the program. “(But) its utility was undermined when it became voluntary.”

A similar venture was started in Arizona all the way back in 2001. The Sex Crimes Analysis Network was a product of a bunch of veteran investigators including Markey, then a sexual-assault investigator with the Phoenix Police Department. They worked out a way to share information most efficiently between far-flung jurisdictions, within budget constraints. And then the funding went elsewhere, Markey recalls.

Harmon said the “focus on rape kits is but a small part of the big picture,” since most of the state laws mandating testing and tracking don’t require CODIS follow-up.

“At present no one, not the FBI, nor any individual state, can provide accurate statistics about the number of hits produced by CODIS since its inception and what the investigative or prosecution outcome was for those hits,” Harmon said.

But SAKI is beginning to have some downstream effect, said some experts. They said this is especially the case in local places like Memphis, where connections have led to breakthroughs in serial killer cases—one of which Forensic Magazine will profile in Part Three of this series.

The numbers for Memphis, just a single city, are staggering. A majority of more than 12,000 kits counted up in 2013 have been tested, partly through SAKI assistance. That stockpile of evidence has yielded an equally staggering amount of police work: more than 2,400 investigations, about 1,700 of which have been closed and another 700 that remain open and active. From these cases, about 250 requests for indictment have been completed.

Strengthening the local data-gathering and investigative capacities only strengthens the national outlook, said Knecht.

“If we’re talking nationally, we’re making a lot of progress,” she said. “All of these SAKI locations are getting hits—and they’re seeing they made mistakes with cases in the past. They’re closing cases—they’re taking people off the street who are really dangerous.”

Investigating the kit results is paramount, added Markey.

“We can’t just test all these kits, get all this information … and it doesn’t go anywhere,” said Markey. “That’s not acceptable.”

“Rape Kits in America” will continue with Part Three on a new partnership between the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative and the FBI’s Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, which intends to connect the dots between the most violent sexual offenders nationwide.