LAPD to expedite DNA testing of backlogged rape kits

DNA evidence in more than 400 rapes and sexual assaults has gone untested even though detectives trying to solve the crimes have not identified any suspects, Los Angeles Police Department officials acknowledged Monday.

After a sweeping inventory of the department's backlog of untested DNA evidence, the samples of semen, blood and other genetic material collected from victims' bodies in these unsolved cases will be prioritized for analysis in hopes that it will identify some of the attackers, Deputy Chief Charles L. Beck said.

Police Chief William J. Bratton and Beck announced the results of the backlog count, recently completed by dozens of detectives who spent weeks in subzero storage areas combing through a poorly maintained jumble of evidence going back decades. In all, evidence from 5,123 rapes and sexual assaults was found to be untested, Bratton said. Nearly 3,800 of those cases have been closed either because detectives arrested someone, prosecutors refused to pursue the case, or police could not determine that a crime had been committed.

The remainder of the investigations are open. In 118 cases, the attack occurred more than a decade ago, meaning that prosecutors likely cannot legally charge anyone even if DNA testing leads to a suspect. In 403 other cases, Beck said, detectives have no discernible suspects to pursue, raising the question why the potentially helpful DNA evidence has gone unexamined.

Beck said he would conduct further inquiries into what he said he expects to be "myriad reasons" for the untested evidence, including poor communication between detectives and the department's crime laboratory, insufficient staffing in the crime lab and shortcomings in the work of some detectives.

Unexamined evidence kits hold potentially crucial information. Through a complex scientific process, DNA analysts can extract a person's genetic code from the collected samples and compare it to those of known felons that are kept in federal and state databases.

When a DNA sample collected at a crime scene or from a victim's body is matched to a DNA profile of someone in the database, it can offer prosecutors nearly irrefutable proof of the person's guilt. The evidence can also be used to confirm that someone has not falsely confessed to a crime or link someone to other unsolved cases.

The LAPD's disclosures Monday follow those of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which announced late last month that it has more than 800 such cases -- far more than had been anticipated. Like the Sheriff's Department, the LAPD plans to test its entire backlog of evidence and has changed old protocols that required detectives to formally request DNA analysis in each case.

The agencies have scrambled to conduct the tallies and devise financially feasible plans to eliminate their backlogs after intense scrutiny by Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups.

The LAPD and Sheriff's Department are increasing the number of in-house lab analysts to handle the constant influx of new cases, while also plotting out ways to outsource the backlogged cases to private labs. Each kit of evidence costs about $1,000 to process.

The LAPD has significantly increased the rate at which it sends out backlogged kits for testing, from an average of 115 each month last year to nearly 500 in January, Beck said.

If current funding rates hold steady, the backlog could be cleared by the summer of 2010, he added.

At the same time, the department is hoping the city provides enough money to hire 26 DNA experts needed for the crime lab to be able to stay on top of new cases.

"It's great that they're now taking steps to address the problem to get a real idea of the scope of it," said Gail Abarbanel, director of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.

"At the end of the day, the only way to get justice for victims and to protect the public is to open every one of those kits. Each one that has gone unopened represents a victim that has had no resolution. Every unopened kit could identify an repeat offender who is out on the street."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

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