The Rape Kit Backlog

Why Most Assault Cases Never See The Inside Of A Courtroom

WHAT YOU CAN DO...

By Alexandra Bixler

        One in five women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime.[1] While this is a harrowing statistic, rape remains the most underreported crime with 63 percent of incidents failing to reach law enforcement. This percentage is abysmally low and often representative of survivor’s fears, whether it be retaliation, losing employment or social ostracization. Unfortunately, the news often propagates these fears through its characterization of victims.  Justice Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, received death threats against her family that impeded her ability to return to work. Rapper R. Kelly is facing legal ramifactions for accusations of child sexual abuse and sexual assault only after the documentary Surviving R Kelly detailed over 30 years of ignored accusations from young, low-income black women. Of the past five U.S. presidents, three have been accused of sexual misconduct (George Bush Sr, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump). Sadly, a large majority of these men resumed their careers practically unscathed.

        While external factors such as societal retaliation or indifference contribute to an unwillingness to report assaults, the legal process itself is inefficient and problematic for survivors. Rape kits are important in gathering forensic evidence for sexual assault cases as they collect identifying information on the perpetrator. However, these vital pieces of evidence are often ignored; in Jackson, Mississippi, the Jackson Police Department (JPD) has a backlog of 600 rape kits, with some being up to 10 years old. While some of these victims decided not to pursue charges, the JPD is still mandated to evaluate the evidence and determine whether to pursue prosecution to prevent further attacks from occurring. This is especially relevant in child sexual abuse cases, as Missippi holds no statue of limitations thereby allowing evidence to be used at practically any time.

        This troubling phenomenon is not specific to Mississippi; the United States has over 100,000 backlogged rape kits[2] and the average wait time for a rape kit to be tested in Washington is 14 months.[3]

        The testing of rape kits sends a very clear message to victims: “you matter and your case matters,” just as a rape kit’s neglect sends the opposite message.

        Hania Noelia Aguilar, a 13-year-old girl from North Carolina, was a victim of this indifference after she was kidnapped, raped and murdered in December 2018. Aguilar’s perpetrator, Michael Ray McLellan, committed another assault in 2016. However, the rape kit that implicated him was never investigated and thereby never made it to court. When asked about the incident, the Robeson County District Attorney Johnson Britt said:

        “I don't know what happened, if it got lost at the sheriff's department, if it got buried on somebody's desk, if it got placed in records division there and just vanished...In all likelihood, had this gone forward and we established a case against him at that time, Hania would not have died. And for that, I can't tell you how much that hurts, I can't tell you how sorry I am."

        The rape kit backlog exists for a variety of reasons. Sex crime units are commonly understaffed, often resulting in departments failing to prioritize these cases.[4] Unfortunately, inherent biases also exist against sexual assault victims, resulting in victims often being blamed or not believed. Research shows that officers suspect sex crime victims of lying more than victims of other crimes despite no evidence of such a variation. Many of these issues stem from a lack of trauma training, causing officers to disregard a victim’s credible account because of a lack of knowledge about the impact of trauma.

        In fact, James Hopper, Ph.D, an Instructor in Psychology at Harvard Medical School, wrote a piece on the impact of trauma on memory loss. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for executive functions like attention, thought processes, or impulses. The prefrontal cortex is severely inhibited in traumatic situations, which makes disorientation and memory gaps common. At some point in a very traumatic event the amygdala “takes over,” causing the brain to hyperfocus on irrelevant details like a facial expression or the designs on the ceiling. Additionally, the hippocampus can also impair a survivor’s ability to recall events in a proper sequential order.[5]  This was an especially prevalent issue when Christine Blasey Ford accused Justice Kavanaugh of attempted rape. Kavanaugh supporters looked to the fact that Blasey Ford did not remember specifics of the assault as lying, when in reality large memory gaps relating to trauma are relatively normal.

        Law enforcement can also sometimes lack knowledge in how sex criminals behave. Unfortunately, sex criminals often target individuals that are powerless or less likely to have legal support, placing these demographics at a higher risk. Some of these invidiuals may be non-English speakers (especially immigrants in the agriculture industry, or in the housekeeping industry), sex workers, drug abusers or the homeless. As a result, at-risk groups that need the most support often garner the least due to societal stigmas that tend to deprioritize the testing of kits from these social demographics.[6]

        Ultimately, stigmas that persist in social spheres against victims of sexual assault are not separate from law enforcement but rather seep into their judgements. It is important for these sex crime units to be properly funded and for all assault victims to be treated with respect. Everyone is entitled to a fair and thorough investigation.

 


[1] Black, M. C., Basile, K. C., Breiding, M. J., Smith, S .G., Walters, M. L., Merrick, M. T., Stevens, M. R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 summary report. Retrieved from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control

[2] Vicory, Justin. “JPD Has a Backlog of 600 Sexual Abuse, Rape Kits. Here's What It Means for Victims.” The Clarion Ledger, Mississippi Clarion Ledger, 21 Mar. 2019

[3] Porter, Essex. “Lawmakers Confront Price Tag for Rape Kit Backlog.” KIRO, 26 Feb. 2019

[4] Hayes, Christal. “NYPD Ignored Understaffing in Sex-Crimes Units, Told Detectives to Ignore Cases, Probe Shows.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 27 Mar. 2018

[5] Lisak, James Hopper and David. “Why Rape and Trauma Survivors Have Fragmented and Incomplete Memories.” Time, Time, 9 Dec. 2014

[6] Monahan, Jerald, et al. “Police Chief Magazine|Topics|Criminal Justice Reform|The Effect of Cultural Bias on the Investigation and Prosecution of Sexual Assault.” Policechiefmagazine.org