Law enforcement agencies across the nation rely on blood, hair and other DNA evidence collected from alleged sexual assault victims to identify and prosecute rapists.
But since 2000, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police have destroyed the results of sexual assault exams – commonly called rape kits – in about 1,000 cases, including alleged crimes against children, according to department records obtained by the Observer.
An expert who has studied sexual assault investigations for the U.S. Department of Justice said she had never heard of that many rape kits intentionally destroyed by a police department.
Contacted by the Observer in September, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police said they did not know how many rape kits remained in their custody. The newspaper then requested the department’s records under North Carolina’s Public Records Act.
Seven months passed before CMPD fulfilled the request. The records show that the department collected 3,015 kits since 2000, and that it incinerated or threw away about one of every three.
CMPD Lt. David Robinson said the department’s actions would not stand up to today’s best practices. But he said that CMPD’s handling of rape kits followed state law, and he maintained that they reflected generally accepted protocol at the time.
Robinson said that every reported sexual assault was thoroughly investigated. He said the kits, which had not been analyzed, were destroyed after victims withdrew their complaints, the district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, a suspect was arrested or officers determined that no crime occurred.
In its analysis of the records, however, the Observer’s found that kits were discarded in 72 cases that were still categorized as open. About half of those cases fall under a 2009 state law that requires police to retain biological evidence in unsolved rape and homicide investigations.
Asked to explain the open cases, the department said it would examine them one-by-one, but it would do so only for cases that had occurred since the law was passed. Robinson later said the review found that those cases had been mislabeled, and many should have been listed as closed.
CMPD now submits all rape kits for testing, a change made last year. It also keeps the evidence in storage, said Lt. Melanie Peacock, who oversees sexual assault investigations. Today, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police recognize that the kits could contain a “treasure trove” of evidence, she said.
“Now we are better educated and looking at this from a global perspective,” Peacock said. “Looking back, it would have been nice if we had done it sooner.”
Value of DNA
Rape kits, first developed in the 1970s, had become a standard part of sexual assault investigations by the early 2000s. By then, the value of DNA evidence in rape cases was established and proponents warned that destroying rape kits was bad practice.
The kits became a powerful investigative tool after the FBI created a national DNA database in the 1990s. The system allowed police to upload DNA profiles of convicted offenders and others arrested into a national database to look for matches.
Police departments in recent years have faced criticism for not processing rape kits collected from alleged crime victims. As a result of a national push to end the backlog of untested kits, however, departments in cities including Detroit and Cleveland had kits tested and identified hundreds of DNA matches.
CMPD also has a backlog of 1,100 untested kits, and is seeking grant money to have outside laboratories process its unanalyzed rape kits.
But the potential benefits of the kits that were destroyed will never be known.
Kim Lonsway, research director for End Violence Against Women International, which conducts training for law enforcement and related professions across the country, said it is a fair question to ask how many sexual assault evidence kits destroyed by CMPD contained evidence that could have helped identify serial rapists.
Among those destroyed by CMPD were 271 kits in reported sexual assaults where an arrest was made, which means police had probable cause to believe a crime occurred.
Research has found that repeat offenders commit an average of six forcible rapes, Lonsway said.
“The single biggest reason why rape victims go through with the process of reporting is because they don’t want it to happen to someone else,” she said.
Rebecca Campbell, a professor at Michigan State University who has studied sexual assault investigations for the Department of Justice, said in her six years of research she has heard anecdotes about departments destroying small numbers of old kits from the 1970s. But she said she has seen nothing that compares to the number intentionally destroyed in Charlotte.
Discarding rape kits is “a symbol of neglect,” Campbell said. “That’s abuse. The message is: ‘This does not matter to anyone.’ ”
Rape kit exams
The gathering of potential evidence for a rape kit involves a thorough physical examination and interview.
The procedure can take four to six hours. Victims are asked to not take a shower, change clothes or eat. The exam often involves vaginal and anal inspections, plucking hairs and a recounting of the attack.
A Charlotte mother whose 13-year-old girl reported being raped in 2009 told the Observer that she was dismayed to learn that her daughter’s rape kit was destroyed.
If her daughter’s alleged attackers assault someone else, she said, they might never be held accountable for what happened to her daughter.
“I’m very bothered by the fact that they randomly destroyed it without reaching out to myself or my daughter,” said the woman, whose name is being withheld by the Observer to protect her daughter’s identity.
The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute the case. The mother said an investigator interviewed the two alleged assailants and they said the sex was consensual.
“The detective said it’s one in a million that they’ll prosecute, and they’ll be able to get a conviction because there were two young men versus her story,” said the mother. “I told him, ‘We’re not ready to drop this.’ I called him for a couple of months. He never returned my calls. I never heard a word more on it until you (an Observer reporter) called me.”
CMPD said officers are expected to return calls from victims within a reasonable time frame. Officials would not answer other questions about the case, saying it would violate department policy.
The mother said the ordeal left her daughter devastated, unable to sleep and in need of counseling.
In addition to being sexually assaulted, she said, the rape kit examination “process was demoralizing” for her daughter.
Mecklenburg County Assistant District Attorney Bruce Lillie said his office reviewed the case thoroughly and determined it was unlikely to lead to convictions. Prosecutors have an ethical responsibility not to pursue cases in court they do not believe they can prove, Lillie said.
In 2009, the N.C. General Assembly mandated that police retain rape kits while cases remain unsolved.
Prompted by the Observer’s questions, two CMPD commanders reviewed 32 open cases that occurred after the law took effect in which rape kits were no longer in the department’s possession.
They said all of the rape kits were handled properly and that CMPD had not violated the state law.
Mark Newbold, the department’s attorney, said the cases had been resolved even though they were listed as open in department records. That meant CMPD was under no legal obligation to keep the rape kits, Newbold said.
Robinson, who helped conduct the review, said some cases were incorrectly listed as open when in fact they should have been marked closed, either because officers could not find probable cause to make an arrest or the allegations were unfounded.
In other cases, Robinson said officers were awaiting administrative clearance to close cases or rape kits were sent to other law enforcement agencies for storage.
Christine Mumma, an attorney who has worked with the General Assembly on all updates to the state’s biological evidence law since it was first passed in 2001, said it is troubling that CMPD destroyed rape kits because it will make it difficult, if not impossible, to charge potential suspects at a later date.
“It’s absolutely a concern” the rape kits were destroyed, Mumma said. “That’s exactly why we changed the law to require preservation of untested rape kits in 2009.”
Mumma heads the the N.C. Center on Actual Innocence, a group that advocates for inmates with credible claims of wrongful conviction. She said the statute has been revised five times since 2001. Although some of the changes were made to increase efficiency, some were in response to law enforcement agencies that interpret the law “in the least restrictive manner possible.”
When asked if they made a mistake in destroying kits, CMPD officials said they followed generally accepted standards in the past. They said officers and detectives followed department policy.
That stands in contrast to the Fayetteville Police Department, which issued a public apology last year for destroying 333 rape kits from 1995 to 2008. It was discovered that the kits were missing during an audit. Previous administrations ordered the kits destroyed to create more storage space.
Chief Harold Medlock, who was deputy chief in CMPD until he was named to Fayetteville’s top post in 2013, said at a press conference that he was distraught the department had potentially lost evidence that could help solve sexual assaults.
“(The apology) was necessary to address the problem and fix the problem,” Medlock said in an interview last week. “In my mind, the destruction of one rape kit is the destruction of one too many.”
Reporter Elizabeth Leland and Database Editor Gavin Off contributed to this story.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department statement
Chief Kerr Putney declined to comment for this story. The department released this statement:
“The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department fully investigates all reports of sexual assault and employs a victim-centered focus on each case. CMPD strives to remain at the forefront of best practices nationwide pertaining to evidence management and testing. The current practices of CMPD have evolved to reflect the nationwide advocacy movement’s recommendation to retain and submit all sexual assault evidence kits for testing. CMPD’s commitment to this endeavor is evidenced in our procurement of grant funds to further expedite the evidence kit testing process.”
CMPD records and interviews with police officials show that among the more than 1,000 rape kits that were destroyed:
▪ Some 271 were destroyed, about 25 percent of the total, after an arrest, which means police had probable cause to believe a crime occurred.
▪ Another 253 kits, or about 23 percent, were destroyed after prosecutors refused to take the case.
▪ In 192 cases, or 17 percent, police determined the kit was not needed because investigators concluded that the sexual assault report was unfounded.
▪ CMPD has a backlog of 1,100 rape kits that have not been analyzed.
Police blame the backlog on limited resources. Testing typically costs about $1,000 per kit, experts said.
Last year, the department received a nearly $300,000 federal grant for four positions that help with DNA analysis. CMPD also collected a roughly $557,000 grant from the District Attorney of New York last year to go toward previously untested rape kits.