In Los Angeles, a massive backlog of DNA evidence kits has been discovered. A scathing audit by the city controller in October showed that the L.A. Police Department had nearly 7,000 unopened and untested rape kits. Soon after, the L.A. County Sheriff's Office disclosed it was storing another 5,000.
Police said they haven't had the money or the technology to cut through the backlog.
But this fall, officials vowed to clear the city's rape kit backlog and begin testing every new kit collected. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said at a news conference that rapists were mistaken if they thought they'd gotten away with a crime.
"Well, you didn't," Villaraigosa said. "The city of Los Angeles will investigate every piece of evidence, follow every lead and exhaust every possible avenue that will lead to the possible prosecution of every open case."
The LAPD opened a new crime lab building in 2007, led by director Greg Matheson. The expanded DNA examination area that will help whittle away the backlog has 20 work benches in a climate-controlled lab.
The mayor said L.A. would hire 16 new technicians and outsource much of the testing backlog. But with the city facing at least a $110 million deficit, it remains unclear whether all those positions will be filled or all that evidence will get tested.
A Comforting Center
People reporting that they've been raped or sexually assaulted in Los Angeles are likely to end up at the Rape Treatment Center at the Santa Monica-UCLA Medical Center. Located down the hall from the emergency room, it has couches and soft lighting.
Director Gail Abarbanel says everyone tries to provide comfort for the victim as she goes through the laborious exam and evidence collection. The process can take hours. Dozens of tissue, urine and other samples are put into separate envelopes and sealed with red evidence tape.
Abarbanel says victims consent to the process in the hope that any foreign DNA removed from them will be checked against California's criminal database.
"You are making a commitment to participate in the criminal justice system and provide evidence that will aid in the prosecution of your case," Abarbanel says. "Not opening rape kits is just a profound betrayal of the victim's belief in the criminal justice system."
A Victim Fights Back
At least 200 kits have been in the LAPD's storage facility past the legal deadline for prosecution.
That's what happened in Jeri Elster's case. In 1992, a stranger broke into her home through a window, tied her up and repeatedly raped her. "It was an awful 2 1/2 hours," she says.
Elster's powder-blue eyes and warm smile belie the horrors she retells outside the office building where she just started a new job. She says she couldn't work for years after the rape. Then, seven years after the assault, she read a newspaper article about a rape suspect who acted like the perpetrator in her case. Elster took the article to an LAPD detective who decided to test the DNA in her rape kit.
"Lo and behold, LAPD comes out with [its] first cold hit," Elster says. Her evidence didn't match that of the suspect cited in the article, but it turned up someone else in the criminal justice system. However, the statute of limitations — at that time six years — had lapsed in her case. The district attorney told her there was nothing she could do.
"I got so angry ... so incensed," Elster says. "And I decided, right there and then, this cannot happen to anybody else."
In 2001, the statute of limitations was lengthened to 10 years, thanks in part to Elster's lobbying. Now, she's pushing to get all rape kits tested.
Los Angeles isn't the only city buried under a backlog. Nationwide, police departments are struggling with huge stockpiles of untested DNA evidence. According to an investigation by Human Rights Watch, as many as 400,000 rape kits sit unopened in crime labs and storage facilities.