The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, under pressure from county supervisors and watchdog groups to account for its handling of DNA evidence from sexual assault cases, acknowledged Wednesday it did not know whether genetic evidence from more than 5,600 rape cases had been examined.
In response to an inquiry by the Board of Supervisors last month, Sheriff's Department officials tallied 5,635 sexual assault evidence kits -- semen and other DNA samples collected by authorities from victims -- sitting in freezer storage facilities, Cmdr. Earl Shields said. The department must now manually compare that inventory with records from its crime laboratory to determine which kits remain unexamined, Shields told the board Wednesday.
"The bad news is we have 5,635 kits in a warehouse," Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky said. "The good news is we now know what has to be done."
The true size of the county's DNA backlog is probably significantly larger, said Sarah Tofte, a researcher with Human Rights Watch who has been pressing local law enforcement agencies around the country to address backlogs. The total announced Wednesday does not take into account the unknown number of sex crime kits that are in the hands of the more than 40 small police agencies in the Los Angeles area that rely on the sheriff's crime lab for analysis, she said.
Under a new policy ordered by Sheriff Lee Baca, all sexual assault kits gathered in the future will be tested -- a departure from a long-running practice in which the sheriff's crime lab analyzed evidence only after detectives handling a case requested it. Shields also said the department would analyze evidence from all kits currently in storage that are found to be untested, although he warned that such an effort would require additional funds to hire more analysts as well as outsourcing testing to private labs.
Unexamined 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 the DNA sample collected at a crime scene or from a victim's body matches a DNA profile of someone in the database, it offers prosecutors nearly irrefutable proof of their 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 scrutiny of the Sheriff's Department comes on the heels of a similar look into the DNA backlog at the Los Angeles Police Department, where DNA evidence from roughly 7,000 rapes and other violent crimes remained untested.
A recent audit of the backlog by City Controller Laura Chick found that 200 potential sexual assault cases had not been prosecuted because LAPD officials failed to meet legal deadlines to test DNA evidence.
In response to the mounting criticism, city politicians and LAPD Chief William J. Bratton last month approved a plan to pay private labs for more testing and to hire additional staff for the LAPD's crime lab. Several million dollars more would be needed in coming years to meet the LAPD's goal of eliminating its backlog by 2013, officials said.
Sheriff's officials in recent months have tried to downplay the size and seriousness of their backlog and resisted comparisons to the LAPD, where the crime lab has fallen behind on requests from detectives to test DNA evidence from about 500 rapes, homicides and other violent crimes.
The Sheriff's Department has only "10 to 20" such cases, Shields said.
Department officials have said they suspect that nearly all the untested evidence kits are from cases in which the detectives have not felt the need to ask for DNA analysis.
"We still believe we will find that untested rape kits are untested because they are of no probative value," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "But we want to make sure what we believe to be right is right."
Shields conceded to supervisors, however, that the Sheriff's Department would not know for certain the status of each rape investigation until it completed its case-by-case review. In cases where there is untested evidence, department officials plan to contact the investigators to find out which have been solved already without the help of DNA and which remain open. As the department attempts to clear the backlog, genetic evidence from cases at risk of expiring because of state laws or from cases still under investigation would be among those tested first, officials said.
Tofte and other advocates for rape victims praised Baca for the changes to his department's DNA policy, but urged the sheriff to hire more investigators to avoid being inundated with new leads in cases as the DNA backlog is cleared.
"Every day we see new victims come in, and we wonder whether that person had to be raped because evidence of their attacker is sitting there in storage," said Gail Abarbanel, founder of the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center.
Rubin is a staff writer.