RICHMOND, Va. — The first phase of a statewide effort to eliminate Virginia’s rape kit backlog is complete. A WUSA9 Original Investigation revealed evidence collected from victims after the worst moments of their lives was never sent to the lab for testing.
For decades, thousands of rape kits were left collecting dust on shelves in police departments. They were never examined by forensic experts; they were never used to get rapists off the streets.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring exclusively told WUSA9 on Tuesday that they've now completed the first phase of testing the kits. Now, there's only two years left in the backlog.
Debbie Smith knows the roller-coaster of emotions rape victims across the Commonwealth are now experiencing. She knows the agony of waiting for someone to test the evidence from her rape kit. The Virginia woman was grabbed from her home in 1989, dragged into the woods and sexually assaulted for hours. It took authorities five years to test her kit. When the DNA was finally entered into the national database, it got a hit. Her case was solved.
“I literally remember taking a deliberate breath because I wanted to live again,” Smith said.
Now, 1,770 Virginia rape kits have finally been tested. Almost a third of those kits — 574 of them — are from cases in our viewing area. WUSA9's review of the data revealed DNA evidence from 58 of those was sent back to local police departments for further investigation. Some of those victims have been waiting for this development since the late 80s.
“It's a sense of relief, a sense of just being thrilled that these women are going to receive some answers and that these kits are finally being allowed to speak truth,” Smith said.
Attorney General Mark Herring fought for the $1.4 million grant to test these kits.
“I want survivors to know that the Commonwealth stands with them as they seek healing, as they pursue justice,” Herring said.
So far, statewide at least 58 cases with hits have been reopened or are under review for potential reopening.
“Each case then gets a fresh look and possibly re-investigated,” Herring said. “Survivors are informed about the results. We want to make sure it is done in a way that minimizes the risk of further victimization.”
As for the rest of the backlog, scientists continue to work on kits from 2014-2016. There are about 1,000 of them. A 2016 law requires speedy testing of rape kits moving forward, so once that batch is tested, Virginia should never again have a backlog.
“Maybe in the past some of these cases weren't taken as seriously as they should have been or investigated as fully as they should have been,” Herring said. “Those days are over.”
Click on a county or city below to see a breakdown of the data for that locality:
Maryland officials announced last fall they also received a grant to examine the backlog there. A spokesperson said no specific number of kits to be tested was identified, but they’ll test as many as funding allows.
The director of the D.C. Department of Forensic Sciences told WUSA9, they have already eliminated the backlog in the District.
“In FY18, our Forensic Biology Unit (FBU) received 268 sexual assault kits,” Dr. Jenifer Smith reported. “All of these kits were worked within DFS. The average turnaround time for testing sexual assault kits was 64 days.”