Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Following a sexual assault, a victim may undergo a medical exam to preserve evidence from the attack. The evidence collected in a "Physical Evidence Recovery Kit," or "rape kit" as they are commonly known, could help bring the perpetrator to justice. However, often they sit on a shelf at a police department for years without being tested.
A 13News Now Investigation has uncovered hundreds of sexual assault kits that have not been tested for DNA in Hampton Roads. Our numbers are part of a USA Today/TEGNA nationwide investigation revealing more than 70,000 untested rape kits across the United States.
13News Now sent the same request to eight of the largest departments in our area. We asked how many "untested sexual assault kits" officials have in their custody. We found there are 1,536 untested rape kits, including 1,243 in Virginia Beach. The numbers hit home for one local woman, whose horrifying experience has turned into a life mission to #TestTheKits.
In 1989, Debbie Smith and her husband Rob were raising their two children in Williamsburg.
"If there was the ideal family, I guess, we had that life," Debbie told 13News Now. "There were no problems that we couldn't handle as a family."
That would be tested on March 3.
Rob, who was a police officer and had just gotten off the midnight shift, was asleep upstairs. Debbie was going in and out of the house, busy checking items off her to-do list. She says she left her front door unlocked, just for a minute.
The decision would change her life forever. Within five minutes, a masked man dragged her out of her home and into the woods behind it. He raped her repeatedly for an hour, then let her go. She ran back inside and woke up her husband.
"I just said, 'He got me, Rob, he got me,'" she recalled.
Rob called the police as she headed for the shower to try, like many victims do, to wash away what had happened to her. But her husband, the Williamsburg cop, knew they had to go to the hospital for a rape kit.
"He said, 'Honey you have to, you just have to. That's the only way we're going to find him. You need to do this,'" Debbie described.
Learn More: What is a rape kit?
Collection of a rape kit is a four- to six-hour long exam, which Debbie says destroys what you have left of your self-esteem.
"But you do it because you know it will give you hope, that there's hope in them taking that evidence from your body," Debbie told us.
For six long years, the Williamsburg mom said she lived in fear and always looked over her shoulder. Then, on July 26, 1995, the Smiths were told Debbie's kit had a cold hit.
Norman Jimmerson's DNA had been collected when he was arrested for a different crime. A cross-check matched the sample to Debbie's rape kit. It was only the fourth cold hit from a rape kit in the entire nation.
"That was the day that I took a deliberate breath," Debbie remembered. "I really wanted to live again."
She says DNA gave her life back.
Jimmerson will spend the rest of his life behind bars. Debbie Smith became an advocate for the testing of rape kits, and her advocacy became federal law. The "Debbie Smith Act" provides grants to local and state law enforcement to process their rape kit backlogs.
Learn More: The Debbie Smith Act
Here in Virginia, there is no mandatory testing of new kits and no law mandating the testing of backlogged kits. In the entire country, Illinois is the only state where agencies must test the old kits.
For the first time, 13News Now is able to give you a better picture of how many untested kits there are here in the Commonwealth. The total of 1,536, which we uncovered is likely conservative, as some departments only included DNA gathered from victims, and not suspects, in their tallies.
We were often met with resistance. Hampton, for example, originally wanted to charge us $2,944 for the information. It was only when we reminded them the department already should be gathering and examining the inventory for a General Assembly report, which details the numbers of untested kits, that we got the data free of charge.
There's also no word yet on what kind of action Virginia lawmakers will take after reviewing that new report.
Here's a look at the data 13News Now was able to obtain:
Initially, none of the eight departments we requested information from agreed to speak to us on camera. However, after asking for interviews for a month and a half, the Virginia Beach Police Department found someone to answer our questions about its 1,243 untested kits.
"The ones that are going to provide us with most evidentiary value are the ones that we're going to want to send," Sgt. Jackie Geluso, who heads the Special Victims Unit, explained.
Geluso has been with the unit for almost a decade.
"The victim has the control and the power over what course of action we take," she added. "If they want to proceed with the case and there's value in sending it to the lab, then absolutely it'll be sent to the lab."
But still, there are kits that don't make it there, so we asked how Geluso counters advocates who believe every kit, taken from both victims and suspects, should be tested.
"Certainly they have their right to their opinion," she responded. "We're investigators, so we are fact finders, and our duty is our service to our victims, so we are going to navigate our investigation based on what our victim wants."
Other police departments gave us their protocols. We went over the information with Debbie Smith.
One of the most common reasons given by police officials is that the victim in the case doesn't want to prosecute.
"If she says it's okay to test it, then we need to test it because it could be valid for somebody else's case," Debbie responded. "I believe that DNA is our biggest crime prevention tool."
Another reason police departments gave 13News Now: There is no question who the perpetrator is.
To that, Debbie says, "There are things that sexual assault nurses can find that can validate a victim's statement and so I think it should be tested."
"Every one of those kits is a human life," Debbie explained. "Every one of those kits has a name on it. Every one of those kits has the fragments of someone who was living life before this came into their life and the very least that we can do is to test that kit for them."
According to the Virginia Department of Forensic Science, it costs $500 to $1,000 to test each kit, depending on the number of samples in it. So, in order to test every single kit, new and old, a funding source is needed.
The Smiths continue to lobby for more federal dollars to go along with the Debbie Smith Act, saying it can help victims get some form of justice.
Funding related to "The Debbie Smith Act" totals $151 million each year for five years. It is authorized for DNA work and other related sciences. Debbie says the National Institute of Justice has found loopholes to use the money for other purposes.
In addition, President Obama's fiscal year 2015 budget proposed the creation of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, which secured $41 million to help state, local and tribal law enforcement and prosecutors' offices take action to reduce the backlog.
In June, the U.S. House approved included $45 million in the proposed fiscal year 2016 spending bill to address the backlog.
"My case, my rapist was put in prison for two life sentences plus 25 years," Debbie added. "That's not going to happen in every case, but I can tell you that a lot of victims, that's not justice to them. Just being heard is justice and their kit speaks louder than anything that they could possibly say."
A USA TODAY investigation found that sexual assault kit testing practices are often arbitrary and inconsistent between law enforcement agencies -- and even within agencies themselves.
In most states and at most law enforcement agencies, there are no written guidelines for processing sexual assault kits. Testing decisions in each case are often left to the discretion of investigating officers, leading to widespread inconsistencies in testing practices.
Despite the fact that adding the DNA information of an offender into state and national databases can help identify predators moving across jurisdictions, we found that many police agencies treat sexual assault kits only in regards to individual cases.
With new attention being focused on the rape kit backlog, efforts are being mounted to tackle the problem.
Contact the following Virginia lawmakers if you want to advocate for victims who submitted to rape kits following a sexual assault:
Senator Mark R. Warner (D- VA)
101 W. Main Street
Norfolk, VA 23510
Senator Tim M. Kaine (D- VA)
222 Central Park Avenue, Suite 120
Virginia Beach, VA 23462
Phone: (757) 518-1674
Representative Rob Wittman (R - 01)
401 Main Street
P.O. Box 494
Yorktown, VA 23690
Phone: (757) 874-6687
Representative Scott Rigell (R - 02)
4772 Euclid Rd., Suite E
Virginia Beach, VA 23462
Phone: (757) 687-8290
Representative Bobby Scott (D - 03)
2600 Washington Ave.
Newport News, VA 23607
Phone: (757) 380-1000
Representative J. Randy Forbes (R - 04)
505 Independence Parkway, Suite 104
Chesapeake, VA 23320
(757) 382 - 0080