Barely half of Honolulu rape cases were solved in 2009, but 60-80 percent of rape kits collected that year never made it to the crime lab for analysis, a Civil Beat investigation has found.

The Honolulu Police Department reported 243 rape cases in 2009, the most recent data available. Honolulu spokeswoman Michelle Yu said police solved 55 percent of those cases, leaving 109 unsolved. Nationally, 41 percent of rape cases were solved that year, according to the FBI.

Given HPD’s estimate of how many kits are assessed in the crime lab each year, the department has a backlog of somewhere between 143 and 203 sexual assault kits left unexamined in the past two years. It’s not known how many of these are associated with unsolved cases.

A study released this month by the National Institute of Justice found that much of the evidence collected from sexual assault cases across the nation is never used in investigations.

In 2,000 jurisdictions surveyed, researchers found that 18 percent of unsolved sexual assaults over a five-year period had untapped evidence associated with them. Instead, forensic material languished in storerooms while related cases remained unsolved. Honolulu was not included in the study.

In 2009, Honolulu’s Sexual Abuse Treatment Center sent 139 sexual assault kits containing DNA evidence to the police. But police processed only a fraction of those kits in a crime lab, between 30 and 60, Yu said. That means 79-109 sexual assault kits weren’t analyzed.

“They are brought over to the evidence property room, and they stay there,” Yu told Civil Beat. “What happens is when the lab receives a work request, they go to the room and collect the evidentiary materials with that case. If there is a kit with the evidentiary materials, it is transferred to the lab.”

The process demonstrates a gap between collecting and analyzing DNA that officials and victims’ advocates in other jurisdictions have said is creating a dangerous backlog of unused evidence in sexual assault cases.

“You know it is a hot topic because of budget cuts and increased workloads,” said Honolulu Supervising Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Kathy Kealoha. “A lot of people are concerned that, because of the economy, everything that’s there and should be tested won’t be tested.”

Using DNA Evidence in Rape Cases

Sexual assault kits — sometimes called “rape kits” — are a collection of DNA evidence taken from the victim of a sexual assault. The evidence collected can include vaginal, anal and oral swabs; pubic hair combings; fingernail scrapings and blood and urine specimens.

On Oahu, the Sex Abuse Treatment Center at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children is the hub for collecting forensic evidence related to sex assaults.

“We have trained physicians on staff who go into our dedicated room of Kapiolani Medical Center, along with one of our crisis counselors,” said Adriana Ramelli, executive director of the Sex Abuse Treatment Center. “Together, they perform medical-legal examination, documentation of the sex assault and gathering any physical evidence. We go in with a kit and we collect the evidence, and we turn the kit over to the HPD as long as the victim consents.”

Other hospitals and medical providers — like the Queen’s Medical Center and Planned Parenthood — partner with Kapiolani by referring victims to the Sex Abuse Treatment Center. A spokeswoman at Queen’s said trained staffers from the center are sometimes able to travel to Queen’s to collect evidence from patients.

“The lab does not track the number of completed kits received each year,” Yu wrote in an email to Civil Beat. “However, between 30 and 60 sexual assault work requests are submitted to the DNA lab annually, and most but not all of the work requests involve sexual assault evidence kits.”

Yu says the work requests come from the prosecutor’s office.

“What it means is we receive kits from the Sex Abuse Treatment Center, however, unless the prosecutor and our investigators request a work request for that kit, that kit is not processed,” Yu told Civil Beat. “That’s why they’re saying the kits they receive are associated with work requests.”

Kealoha says there is no standard protocol for how prosecutors in Honolulu decide when to send a work order to the crime lab requesting analysis of a sexual assault kit.

For starters, she says they look at how much information about a suspect the kit is likely to yield. One of the major challenges in collecting evidence related to a sexual assault is being able to do so soon enough after the assault has taken place, and before a victim may have washed away forensic clues.

“It depends on what information we have in cases that happened a week ago or a month ago,” Kealoha said. “Of course those are going to be cases where, although a rape kit may be completed, it is highly unlikely that it would be turned in for a work request because of the late reporting.”

But the assistant director at the Sexual Abuse Treatment Center says the center only collects evidence for a sexual assault kits within 72 hours of the attack.

“Our criteria is within a 72 hour period, so three days from the time of the assault, not from the time of the report of the assault,” said Cindy Shimomi-Saito, the center’s associate director. “Some states do four or five days, we do three days. So the police wouldn’t receive any DNA evidence outside of that time frame. It’s not like weeks or anything like that.”

Shimomi-Saito said it’s also important to point out that the police only receive a portion of the usable evidence the center collects. Not all victims want to involve law enforcement, even if they agree to let medical staffers collect DNA evidence, she says.

“Not all of our cases are police reported, and we still collect evidence and we store it here in our own locked evidence room,” she said. “At any given time a person might change their mind.”

Shimomi-Saito says her main concern is that people seek medical help, and not be discouraged by statistics.

“This is a significant challenge that must be addressed, but it’s still important to remember that the sex assault kit is just one aspect of what takes place when individuals seek help,” Shimomi-Saito said. “It’s so important for people to come
forward to get help.”

How Bad is the Backlog?

In 2009, Shimomi-Saito says the Sexual Abuse Treatment Center completed 229 acute exams for victims of sexual assault. Of those exams, the center collected evidence in 198 sexual assault kits. Then, 139 of those went to HPD.

Last year, the center completed 207 exams, collected 162 sexual assault kits and turned over 124 to the police.

The department left somewhere between 143 and 203 sexual assault kits in its evidence storage room.

“Everybody has a different definition of ‘backlog,'” said Ramelli. “For instance, if you were to ask a crime laboratory, ‘Do you have a backlog?’ the crime lab may say, ‘No, we don’t have a backlog,’ and it could be because all the kits that are given to them are processed. What it doesn’t mean is that all the rape kits collected are within that crime lab. Rape kits could be sitting in the evidence room of a police station and never have gotten to a crime lab. That’s the backlog.”

HPD offered little information about how it decides when to use a sexual assault kit in an investigation. (After weeks of repeated requests, spokeswoman Yu told Civil Beat that staffers in the crime lab would only respond to questions via email.)

“The decision to analyze evidence in a kit is made by the case investigator and prosecutor,” Yu wrote.

In the National Institute of Justice study, researchers found 44 percent of police departments said one of the reasons for deciding not to analyze a kit was when “a suspect had not been identified.” Fifteen percent said they did not analyze kits unless ordered by a prosecutor.

Nearly one-third of the departments said they did not submit evidence to crime labs for testing because they were uncertain as to how useful the kits would be.

“In the ideal world, yes, in the best of situations, what we’d want is for every kit to be analyzed,” the center’s Ramelli said. “Is every kit being analyzed? No. And who defines that protocol? Our job is to collect the evidence, and give it to the police department. Then the police set up their own parameters on when they decide to do analysis on a kit. If you’re wanting to do alleged offender identification, that would beg the argument as to why you’d want every rape kit analyzed.”

Without analyzing the kits, there’s no way of knowing whether testing more kits would help solve more crimes. Officials at the Sex Abuse Treatment Center and at the prosecutor’s office agree that the testing is expensive, though neither could say how much it costs.

National Attention

Increasingly, officials in other regions have sounded the alarm about leaving sexual assault kits untested. Across the United States, there are examples of rapes, murders and other crimes that could have been prevented had earlier DNA testing been conducted.

In the National Institute of Justice report, Kellie Greene writes of the stranger who hid in her kitchen, cracked open her head with her tea kettle, then raped and beat her for 45 minutes.

“One day — three years after I was raped — the detective called to tell me that DNA testing of semen on my leggings had identified the man who raped me,” Greene wrote. “It was the first time in three years that I felt safe. But my relief turned to anger when I was told that the man — David Shaw, a man with a history of burglary and theft — had raped another woman in December, six weeks before he raped me. Shaw was arrested for that earlier rape, but, sadly, the evidence in that case was not tested for two years. If it had been tested, this man would have been identified and caught and I would not have been raped and beaten.”

In other states, officials are calling for a more standardized approach to the handling of sexual assault kits. Ohio’s attorney general called for a statewide policy this month after it was discovered that a kit collected in 2009 but never tested linked a suspected serial killer to an attack on a woman. In Detroit, officials recently uncovered more than 10,000 unprocessed, untested or improperly stored sexual assault kits dating back to 1986.

A lack of resources is the major hurdle that jurisdictions including Honolulu face. But the center’s Ramelli says a lack of resources should not slow the conversation about how to improve the current system.

“We need to look at what would be the benefits and what would it take, dollar-wise,” Ramelli said. “You never want to accept the reality that a lack of resources prevent (kits from being analyzed). If there’s a kit that’s sitting on a shelf and it could identify someone… It becomes a tool where if you have this person uploaded into some bank you try to cross-reference it. That’s the bigger question.”

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