Inside look at lab's analysis of VA's untested rape kits
For the first time, 13News Now was able to get an inside look at the lab analyzing thousands of untested rape kits, which hold evidence taken from victims in Virginia.
As part of our year-long "Test the Kits" investigation, we traveled to Northern Virginia to show you the work that could hold the keys to solving rape cases that date back decades. Hundreds of them are from Hampton Roads.
Original Report: Untested Rape Kits
The envelopes are distinctive: there’s bright red tape with the word “evidence” written in all caps. Inside is the aftermath of what is often the worst moment in a person's life. That aftermath is an invasive exam where victims are poked and prodded. They only take it on in the hopes that evidence from their bodies will bring a rapist to justice.
Those envelopes -- some of which have sat collecting dust on the shelves of police departments for decades -- have finally ended up at the Bode Cellmark Forensic Lab in Northern Virginia. It is contracted through a $1.4 million grant to test 2,369 rape kits that were never sent for DNA examination.
“It's really good to see that this work is being done,” Attorney General Mark Herring, who applied for the grant, said during our visit to the lab. “It's been a long time coming.”
For the first time we are exclusively able to show the work that means the cases of more than 2,000 victims could be one step closer to being solved. More than 2,000 men, women and children will be one step closer to getting closure.
“They've gone through an incredible trauma to begin with, but to live with the uncertainty of perhaps the perpetrator is still out there just compounds the victimization,” Herring explained.
At any given moment, most of the files in the Bode evidence room are sexual assault kits. Right now in the building, there are 617 kits from Virginia; 379 of them have been tested. They come from Fairfax and Virginia Beach.
The testing is a tedious process.
“I check to make sure the evidence seals are still intact that nothing has been tampered with,” Forensic Casework Supervisor Brian Adams showed 13News Now.
Samples are inventoried and prioritized for what needs to be tested first. Everything is given a unique case number so nothing gets misplaced. Only one sample gets tested at a time.
“From each of these, I will cut along the base to the top, approximately one half of each of these swabs,” Adams demonstrated as he sliced what looks like a large Q-tip or cotton swab that would contain DNA evidence.
The cuttings are put in a tube ready for extraction.
“It's important to document the date and your initials on every single piece of evidence and evidence tape, because it shows in effect the chain of custody,” he added.
Then, the procedure is repeated over and over again for each piece of evidence.
“The process of going through a sexual assault kit and doing the forensic testing... although I can describe the test as relatively simple, when you're looking at tens of thousands of cases, it's extremely laborious,” said Mike Cariola, who is the General Manager of Bode Cellmark.
This kind of work is Bode's core focus. We've learned it is one of only two labs in the entire country that has the capacity to do testing on this level. In fact, the analysts now working on the Virginia cases are the ones who helped clear backlogs in New York City, Detroit, Houston and Los Angeles.
Analysts in the lab are able to get DNA profiles from the evidence in the sexual assault kits. Those profiles are then sent to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. Analysts there input the information into the national database.
Any hits or matches are sent onto law enforcement, who originally hoped they could bring victims answers. The results could erase the fear rape has forced them to withstand. With about 10,000 forensic cases taken on per year, this work has become personal for everyone.
“It's powerful, because the analysts that do the testing, you see the paperwork, you know some of what happened in these cases and when you see the final outcomes of that it is just rewarding professionally,” Cariola told us.
As this batch of testing is completed, other police departments, including those in Hampton Roads, will send more kits. Bode officials hope to have all the Virginia testing complete sometime next year.
“For the survivors of sexual assault to know that the backlog in these rape kits is going to be tested, it means that they know their state and their Commonwealth is standing with them in their pursuit for justice,” Herring added.
For some perspective on the scope of their work, Bode analysts are the ones who tested the human remains at the World Trade Center after September 11th. That work allowed families to know what happened to their loved ones.