Originally in Asheville Citizen-Times

October 4, 2018

Thursday was a "good news, bad news" kind of day for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein.

At a press conference at the State Crime Lab in Raleigh, he announced a $2 million federal grant with which the state will be able to test about 1,400 sexual assault evidence collection kits that had previously been left on the shelves of law enforcement agencies.

That's the good news. 

The bad news is that the 1,400 previously neglected sexual assault kits — commonly referred to as "rape kits" — now slated for testing represent less than 10 percent of the state's 15,160 untested kits uncovered in a February report ordered by the General Assembly in 2017. 

"This grant will go a long way, but testing 1,400 kits is not enough," Stein said.

The problem, Stein said Thursday is that North Carolina's State Crime Lab, which tests all sexual assault kits, is not equipped to clear the massive backlog while simultaneously testing all the new kits that are coming in for analysis.

Since Monday — when the state's new sexual assault kit tracking protocol went into effect — the crime lab has received five new kits, Stein said. 

In order to address the backlog without delaying the testing of new kits, the state will have to outsource its "thousands and thousands" of untested kits to private labs, Stein said. Since February, North Carolina has sent 587 previously untested sexual assault kits to private labs for testing. Ten of those kits have resulted in DNA matches stored in a Federal Bureau of Investigation database. 

“That doesn’t mean those cases are necessarily solved yet, and it’s too soon to discus the particulars of those cases," Stein said. "But there is nothing like DNA to bring a cold case to conclusion.”

Part of a larger national testing backlog

The $2 million grant comes from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which aims to reduce rape kit backlogs, a problem familiar to many states. Texas, for example, has one of the nation's largest collections of untested rape kits, about 20,000 in all.

Stipulations of the grant allow North Carolina to spend about half of the money on outsourcing untested kits to private firms. The remaining money will be spent on temporary staff for the crime lab and for the training of sexual assault investigators, Stein said.

The attorney general also announced Thursday that the state's new sexual assault tracking program — which will label each new and existing kit with a bar code allowing victims to track the progress of their case — is now in effect. 

What is the impact?

This is particularly important to John Somerindyke, of the Fayetteville Police Department, and Monika Johnson Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Both spoke at the Thursday press conference. 

In late August, the Fayetteville Police Department, using DNA evidence, arrested a man they believe to be the "Ramsey Street Rapist," who allegedly raped six women during a two year span and eluded cops for more than a decade. 

“Every rapist is a serial rapist, and when we don’t test rape kits, when we don’t test all available DNA, we’re allowing serial rapists to continue to run free and to rape,” Somerindyke said. 

For Johnson Hostler, Thursday's news means that victims of sexual assault — whose lives are "forever changed" by the experience — will have some small peace of mind that they didn't before. 

“For those survivors in North Carolina who will now choose to have their DNA and their evidence collected after a sexual assault, I feel for the first time I can say to them that we have a committed team of leaders in North Carolina who, at this level in our state organizations, are committed to ensuring that their voices are heard in this process,” Johnson Hostler said. 

Though Stein commended the state legislature for securing the tracking system and for creating a select committee committed to providing law enforcement with guidance in the processing of sexual assault kits, he called on legislators to commit funding needed to clear the backlog — a step they've yet to take despite his recommendations, he said. 

"What is clear is the GA must step up," Stein said. "We will never finish testing all these kits without a public commitment to the pubic’s safety.”