DFS: About 40-percent increase in number of rape kits sent to state lab

13News Now Laura Geller has the story

RICHMOND, Va. (WVEC) -- Virginia’s state forensic lab has had a huge jump in the number of new rape kits submitted for DNA testing.

The 40-percent increase reported by the Department of Forensic Science (DFS) joins the widespread impacts of 13News Now's 18-month-long investigation Test the Kits.

The investigation showed that there were thousands of rape kits containing DNA evidence that police never sent for testing. It exposed the fact that hundreds of kits from Hampton Roads were left sitting on shelves in police departments. 

Besides the increase in submissions, police have explained what happens when the testing of old kits leads to hits in the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

The developments are prompting reactions from survivors of sexual assault who have been working for justice including Debbie Smith, the wife of a police officer.

Someone grabbed Debbie from her home in Williamsburg while her husband slept, dragging her into the woods, and sexually assaulting Debbie for hours.

It wasn't until years later that a cold hit in CODIS helped solve the case.

“There was that sense of relief from fear that I knew who he was, I knew where he was,” Debbie recalled.

“For me I breathed for the first time,” she cried. “I literally remember taking a deliberate breath because I wanted to live again.”

Debbie's story has been the motivation behind many of the rape kit reform laws across the country. Some of those reforms took place in Virginia after our Test the Kits investigation.

Since our first story aired, not only have laws been passed, but money has been allocated for testing of old rape kits. Evidence from at least one of those kits -- a Virginia Beach Physical Evidence Recovery Kit or PERK -- had a hit in CODIS.

Debbie reacted to the news, saying, “It's a sense of relief, a sense of just being thrilled that these women are going to receive some answers, that these kits are finally being allowed to speak truth."

A hit doesn't mean immediate answers or that an arrest is imminent arrest.

Virginia Beach police told us each hit prompts detectives to review the facts of the case, the previous investigation of the alleged crime, and the how the profile changes what they know. Then, they'll present the case to the commonwealth's attorney.

“We remain committed to disclosing information to our community when an arrest occurs as a result of these investigations prompted by previously untested kits, but have no information regarding arrests at this time,” Deputy Chief of Investigations William Dean wrote.

“The worst thing that you want to do is test all of these kits and then do nothing about it,” Debbie explained. “But I think as a part of the public what we have to understand is that the more of these hits that we get the more man-hours it's going to take.”

Additional man-hours now will be needed at the state lab, as well. About a year after our investigation, a new law established requirements for how long police departments have to send in kits for testing.

It was during the first quarter that that law was in effect that DFS saw the 40-percent increase in submissions.

If that trend continues, more than 300 additional kits will be tested this year than the year before. That means 300 more victims could be one step closer to justice.

“To know that Virginia, when they really understood the problem -- and that was a result of good reporting -- they took a step and did something about it,” Debbie stated. “It says freedom to me for some of these victims who have been waiting all this time and probably so many of them thought that they were just totally forgotten.”

Debbie noted that the developments signify progress but added there is more work to be done and that there are other people's stories that, like hers, must be heard.

“Behind every one of those kits is a life,” said Debbie. “An old wound is being opened up and so where do we go from here is to make sure that not only do we solve their case, but we make sure that they're taken care of as well.”

As the Virginia General Assembly session begins this week, public safety officials will be monitoring budget negotiations closely. Despite tight financial times, they are hopeful that none of the funding for the rape kits initiative will be reduced.

 


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