Originally on WRAL.com

May 23, 2019

The Durham Police Department has moved 357 of its 1,711 untested sexual assault kits off of storage shelves and into analysis in the past year, enough to make it second in the state for kits tested, Attorney General Josh Stein said Thursday.

At a press conference at the police department, Stein said Durham's progress showed the type of commitment he has been seeing from law enforcement agencies across the state to eliminating the state's 15,000-kit backlog – the highest in the country.

"That is an unfortunate designation that we cannot accept," Stein said.

He pointed out that staff at the State Crime Lab had managed to win $3 million in grant money to outsource testing of the kits and called on the General Assembly to fully fund Gov. Roy Cooper's request for another $6 million to eliminate the backlog.

The $6 million remains in the budget passed by the state House. The Senate is considering the budget now.

"We need the legislature to step up," Stein said.

He said three decades-old sexual assaults cases have been solved in recent weeks because of the effort to catch up on kit testing. Investigators get "hits" in 10 percent of the kits they test, he said.

How did the state let such a backlog develop?

A combination of factors, Stein said. Previously, each law enforcement agency had its own policy for when rape kits would be tested, and investigators weren't convinced of the tests' efficacy. Five or 10 years ago, Stein said, the science and the technology were still new. Tests weren't as likely to find a DNA sample as they are now, and there were fewer people in the database, so the chances of finding a match were lower.

That's changed, he said. A new statewide policy requires law enforcement agencies to submit kits for testing within 45 days, and a statewide tracking system will let investigators and victims know where each kit stands.

"The whole process is stronger, and that's why it is so important that law enforcement test these kits going forward," Stein said. "The crime of sexual assault is absolutely devastating. It is the most intimate violation a person can experience. The person then sits through hours of detailed inspection to produce the kit. We owe it to those survivors to test the kits because, when we test the kits, we solve crimes."

Charlene Reiss, of the Durham Crisis Response Center, added, "When a survivor chooses to have a sexual assault kit done, it is not an easy process. Even with our very skilled sexual assault nurse examiners at Duke Health System, the examination and evidence collection take many hours. It is uncomfortable, and it is invasive. It takes courage to submit one's body to that process and to tell the story of a sexual assault to a stranger."

Survivors, she said, expect their kits to be tested.

"We need to honor their courage by testing their kits."

The Asheville Police Department has tested the highest number of sexual assault kits in the state in the past year, Stein said, followed by Durham and Winston-Salem.

Fayetteville, he said, has managed to eliminate every untested kit in Cumberland County.