OAKLAND -- Alameda County is in talks with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to streamline the way sexual assault evidence is processed and hoping to become a model for other jurisdictions around the country.
Under the pilot program, rape kits--semen, hair and other DNA evidence -- that are sent to private labs would undergo a streamlined review after they are processed, in an attempt to speed up cases.. In instances where the suspect is known, DNA profiles will be used to see if the perpetrator has committed other crimes, said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O'Malley.
"We're going to bring tomorrow's technology to today's solutions and tap into the resources that exist today and are not being utilized in many of our jurisdictions," O'Malley said Tuesday.
Earlier this year, O'Malley's office identified about 1,900 untested rape kits sitting on crime lab shelves. Today about 270 kits considered top priority remain, which the county hopes to analyze and prosecute soon. Of the kits tested, half have been linked to a perpetrator within 72 hours of uploading the information.
Nationally, an estimated 500,000 rape kits remain untested as a result of inadequate funding or departments that prioritize other crimes. Often, rape kits where the assailant is also known are not tested, especially if the rapist admits fault. That's a problem, said O'Malley, since even known rapists can be linked to other crimes.
In one such case involving a Cleveland woman who had been raped by her brother-in-law, the rape kit was never submitted because the assailant was known. More than 20 years passed until Cleveland police finally submitted the kit, matching the man to the rapes and murders of two teenagers.
Under the program, private labs will run some DNA samples from crimes, freeing up government labs to take on other kits, doubling up on the testing, O'Malley said. A percentage of the samples tested by private labs will be reviewed by government labs for quality control.
Clearing the backlog of rape kits has been a priority for O'Malley and Representative Mike Honda, D-San Jose, who recently helped secure $42 million in federal funds to address the backlog. That money will now be used to set up new cold case units and hire additional detectives to investigate sex crimes.
"Victims endure emotional trauma of the rape and then undergo an invasive forensic examination to collect DNA samples," Honda said. "Knowing that the kits remain untested and their case not prosecuted because of administrative issues only adds to the victim's pain and suffering."
Natasha Alexenko, who was raped and robbed at gunpoint on a New York City street in 1993, said Alameda County's program is at the forefront of the nation when it comes to bringing sexual assault cases to justice.
"Communities where every kit is tested have seen a dramatic difference in arrest rates," Alexenko said. "Our leaders are recognizing that it's an issue and the new funding that will allow cities to create infrastructure that works to bring justice to victims.
Follow Karina Ioffee at Twitter.com/kioffee.