Forgotten Evidence: A Mixed Methods Study of Why Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs) Are Not Submitted for DNA Forensic Testing

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Abstract

Throughout the United States, hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits (SAKs) (also termed “rape kits”) have not been submitted by the police for forensic DNA testing. DNA evidence can help sexual assault investigations and prosecutions by identifying offenders, revealing serial offenders through DNA matches across cases, and exonerating those who have been wrongly accused. In this article, we describe a 5-year action research project conducted with 1 city that had large numbers of untested SAKs—Detroit, Michigan—and our examination into why thousands of rape kits in this city were never submitted for forensic DNA testing. This mixed methods study combined ethnographic observations and qualitative interviews to identify stakeholders’ perspectives as to why rape kits were not routinely submitted for testing. Then, we quantitatively examined whether these factors may have affected police practices regarding SAK testing, as evidenced by predictable changes in SAK submission rates over time. Chronic resource scarcity only partially explained why the organizations that serve rape victims—the police, crime lab, prosecution, and victim advocacy—could not test all rape kits, investigate all reported sexual assaults, and support all rape survivors. SAK submission rates significantly increased once criminal justice professionals in this city had full access to the FBI DNA forensic database Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), but even then, most SAKs were still not submitted for DNA testing. Building crime laboratories’ capacities for DNA testing and training police on the utility of forensic evidence and best practices in sexual assault investigations can help remedy, and possibly prevent, the problem of untested rape kits.

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