Update: Testing Backlogged Rape Kits in Illinois


What’s Happened Since
In addition to being required to process all backlogged rape kits, the 2010 legislation introduced several important procedures. Police departments must submit all DNA evidence from reported sex crimes to one of the seven Illinois State Police crime labs, or one of two publically funded crime labs in Wheaton and Vernon Hills, Illinois, within 10 days of collection from the hospital. The ISP lab must analyze the evidence within six months, but only, as the law stipulates as a contingency, “if sufficient staffing and resources are available.”

As the commander of the Illinois State Police Forensic Laboratory System, Arlene Hall leads this process. She has worked for the state for 29 years, but was less than a year into her current position when news broke that police departments hadn’t been turning over the rape kits.

“If anyone had asked me if I really thought we were getting all the cases, I would have sworn we were,” she says. As of April 30, 2012, Ms. Hall says 4,139 backlogged kits have been reported by law enforcement agencies as needing to be submitted as evidence; 4,008 of those were expected to be submitted to the Illinois State Police Crime Lab system, with the additional 131 cases being processed by the Wheaton and Vernon Hills facilities. The oldest case involves a rape kit dating back to 1978.

The process is supposed to work like this: Once the lab receives a kit, it’s logged in, marked with a case number and bar code, and reviewed to make sure it contains all the proper evidence. Most are shipped – except for cases that include evidence other than a kit, like blankets or other large items – and outsourced to be screened for biological material. If scientists find appropriate and sufficient biological material, according to Ms. Hall, then the kit undergoes a DNA analysis. For these kits, much of that initial screening and DNA testing has been outsourced to Orchid Cellmark, a DNA paternity testing laboratory, Ms. Hall explains, because of the sheer volume and time frame.

It costs about $1,000 per case, but “it’s helping us move forward,” Ms. Hall says. Most of the funding, she notes, comes from the State Offender DNA Identification System Fund, where anyone convicted of a felony and certain other eligible crimes must provide DNA for inclusion in the database and pay $250. Additional funding comes from two other sources: the State’s General Revenue fund, which is legislatively appropriated funding from taxes and other sources, and various federal grants, such as the Violence Against Women Act and the National Institute of Justice DNA Backlog Reduction Program. Altogether, Ms. Hall estimates the backlogged cases will cost approximately $1.8 million by the end of this fiscal year (June 30, 2012) and a total of $2.6 million through the estimated completion date of June 30, 2014.

If a DNA profile not from the victim is found in the outsourced rape kit, the DNA profile data is shipped back to Illinois State Police. Then it’s reviewed, and, if appropriate – according to standards set by the FBI – uploaded and tracked in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database. The goal is to see if the DNA collected from the rape kit matches any DNA already in the database.

With 2,049 cases already processed, Ms. Hall reports that there have been 445 CODIS “hits,” or matches, to other DNA profiles in the database, or approximately a 22 percent “hit rate.”

The significance of any CODIS hit, however, “can only be determined through additional investigation by the law enforcement agency,” Ms. Hall says, referring to the police departments and detectives who originally handled the case.

Now, the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault (ICASA), the Attorney General’s Office and Ms. Hall will discuss this new development to determine how to proceed with this information, says Cara Smith, public access counselor for the Office of the Attorney General. As of press time, these conversations were still in development.

“One of the things that still needs to be done is to identify what is their significance,” Ms. Madigan says. “Are these cold cases that haven’t been fully investigated and need to be pursued? Has an arrest already been made? We need to do an analysis to determine the impact.”

In addition to the CODIS hits, rape kits are crucial for matching DNA when a suspect has already been identified in a particular case; according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), almost two-thirds of rapes are completed by someone known to the victim. Plus, the DNA profile remains on file; if the perpetrator attacks again, police are able to more easily connect crimes committed by a serial rapist.

State police are already seeing “a significant increase in submitted rape kits,” Ms. Madigan adds. This increase averages out to 60 more kits submitted each month, or 720 each year, compared to before the law.

Surprisingly, Chicago had a minimal number of backlogged cases – 21 total, says Sergeant Kathryn Warner, commanding officer of the Forensic DNA Unit for the Chicago Police Department, which processed 1,345 rape cases in 2011.

That’s partly because an Illinois Department of Corrections state law regarding CODIS changed in 2003; starting in 2005, Ms. Warner says, the City of Chicago changed its rules to comply, requiring Chicago Police Department detectives to submit all rape kits. Although Ms. Warner says CODIS has “been around for a long time,” there were limited resources and DNA samples until recently, when some states began including DNA samples for anyone who is arrested in addition to anyone convicted of a felony. It’s something Illinois is contemplating, since it currently only requires convicted felons to submit DNA.

“We do feel the legislation is really helping. Largely, the state wasn’t really focused on this issue a few years ago,” says Jobi Cates, director of the Chicago office of Human Rights Watch. “In a state where resources are shrinking, the Attorney General’s Office has put resources toward an important matter. Rape kits are essential. They’re critical evidence in supporting a victim’s claim.”

Still, Ms. Cates points out, in 69 percent of reported sexual assault cases, no rape kit is performed.

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About Dawn Reiss

Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based, award-winning journalist who covered both trials of former Illinois Rod Blagojevich as well as other major events in the Midwest for Time magazine and Time.com. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, Time Out Chicago, Chicago magazine, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, American Way, and more than 30 other national and regional outlets. For stories, she done everything from eating crickets in Cambodia to investigating the death of two sailors during the Race to Mackinaw last summer to interviewing the likes of Maya Angelou and Justin Bieber.