I-Team: DNA testing backlog delays Kentucky criminal cases

Posted at 5:00 AM, Oct 04, 2018
and last updated 2018-10-05 01:03:22-04

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A backlog of thousands of old, untested rape kits in Kentucky is cleared up, but another backlog at the state crime lab has many more DNA samples still sitting, waiting to be tested.

A 9 On Your Side I-Team investigation found that second backlog means some criminal cases that need the DNA test results to move forward are stalled.

There are 2,260 pending assignments at the Kentucky State Police Central Lab, including DNA evidence from all types of cases. Among all the pending cases, there are more than 20,000 individual pieces of evidence waiting for DNA testing. That backlog started in 2013. 

One of the victims whose case is stalled by the backlog is Tracie Jackson. She said she was attacked in January in a Northern Kentucky public park by a man she met on an internet dating site.

"I thought I was being safe," she said. "I met him in a public place."

Now, Jackson and investigators are waiting on evidence. The results of her rape kit could affect what happens in a criminal case against her alleged attacker.

WCPO does not normally identify people who say they are victims of rape, but Jackson contacted reporters and wanted to share her story in order to be a voice for other victims who are too scared to come forward.

"They're saying it will be May of next year at the earliest, which is 15 months after it happened," Jackson said. "So, for 15 months, I'm just going to be stuck in limbo."

Of the 2,260 pending cases at the crime lab, 425 — 19 percent — involve a sexual assault evidence collection kit, like the one Jackson is waiting on.

"They're re-victimizing people," she said. "This is harder. It makes it a lot harder to move on and get through what happened when you have no answers."

Laura Sudkamp, the laboratory director at the Kentucky State Police Central Lab in Frankfort, said the average turnaround time has dropped from 15 months to about eight months.

High employee turnover, low salary offerings and an influx of DNA cases from police departments across the state have created a challenging workload for lab analysts, according to Sudkamp.

"We are working as hard as we can, as fast as we can," she said. "We do have people that feel guilty because they go on vacation knowing that there are kits sitting here."

By contrast, Indiana State Police report its lab takes an average of 75 days to complete DNA testing. A 2017 state Senate resolution required ISP to conduct a statewide survey of untested sexual assault kits. Since then, 994 new kits have been submitted from across the state except for Marion County, where Indianapolis is located, which maintains its own data and laboratory. But, Indiana’s law does not require analysis of backlogged -- or new -- rape kits.

In Ohio, a spokesperson with the attorney general's office said DNA testing takes an average of 24 days. Ohio also previously had a backlog of sexual assault kits from local law enforcement agencies. In 2011, Attorney General Mike Dewine began an initiative which resulted in the testing of nearly 14,000 old rape kits. That backlog has been cleared up, and state law now requires testing of all new kits.

A 2016 Kentucky law states that, by July 1 of this year, if funding is provided, the state crime lab is supposed to have DNA results turned around within 90 days. That’s far less time than the current 8- or 15-month wait.

"We did not meet that," Sudkamp said. "We did go before the judiciary committee and told them that we did not make it. We expect to be there by the end of January, so we're late."

On top of the current DNA cases, the lab is also dealing with the original rape kit backlog. In 2015, another new state law required the lab to test every untested rape kit collected across Kentucky. That happened in the middle of a nationwide push from sexual assault advocacy groups to "end the backlog."

"We call them 'previously unsubmitted' or 'latent kit' for lack of a better term," Sudkamp said. "Like a latent print is a print that's left behind at a scene, a latent kit is a kit that is left behind and needs to now be tested."

A 2015 state audit found 3,173 cases that sat untouched for years, leaving some possible rape cases unsolved. The Office of Victim Advocacy in the Kentucky Attorney General’s office also uncovered additional kits, bringing the total number to 4,587.

Last year, labs outside Kentucky analyzed all of those kits. So far, only about half of the results have undergone required additional review, and DNA hits entered into a federal database, Sudkamp said.

The Manhattan District Attorney's Office and U.S. Department of Justice provided $5 million in grants to cover costs to end the initial backlog. In 2016, Attorney General Andy Beshear's office also gave the crime lab $4.5 million from civil settlements to fund lab upgrades and prevent future backlogs from occurring.

"Every victim deserves justice, which includes having his or her kit tested in a timely manner," Beshear said in a written statement. "My office provided the lab with $4.5 million, the exact amount of money KSP said it needed to meet the testing requirements under the SAFE Act. If there is a delay in the testing of new kits, I am concerned and will do everything in my power to determine the cause and demand it be fixed."

The current delays and recurring money problems mean state lawmakers need to do more, according to Christy Burch. She is the executive director of the Women’s Crisis Center in Covington, an organization that works with rape, sexual assault and abuse victims.

"We have to prioritize victims of sexual violence and survivors of sexual violence," Burch said.

But things are looking up, according to Sudkamp. She said lab data show analysts completed DNA testing on 551 cases between July and September last year. This year, they completed 775 cases in the same period.

"The good news is, we are continuing to get that momentum going," she said. "So we are believing, hopeful, determined that by the end of January, we will have that 90-day -- on average -- turnaround time."

The crime lab has increased its staff to about 32 this year, up from about 22 last year. However, there are people included in both counts that have significant other duties besides working the cases, according to Sudkamp. Some of the new hires made this year are still under restrictions, impeding their ability to work quickly. They also still have a few vacancies.

Sudkamp said that she is having a hard time retaining lab analysts because they can go to another job or another state and make more money.

“The legislature’s been good," she said. "They did give everyone a $4,000 pay bump this past session, which was well received. It still keeps us at the bottom of the barrel. The Justice Cabinet, the governor’s office, they are looking at ways to figure out, within the means that we have, how can we come up with another way to raise the pay.”

In the meantime, Burch said any victims who are waiting should reach out for help from friends, family and the community.

"Survivors are so brave and resilient," she said. "And they need us as a community to anchor in and support them and to believe them."

Jackson said that's what has gotten her through the aftermath of her attack so far. She knows she's strong enough to wait, and hopes other victims won't have to.

"It was the first time in my life I've ever stood up for myself by reporting it, so I do feel good about that," Jackson said.

Sudkamp said Jackson won't have to wait until May after all.

The results of her rape kit will be ready by the end of the year.

Here are some links for resources for victims of sex crimes: