We call the thousands of sexual assault evidence kits in New Mexico a backlog. But as the state Auditor’s Office pointed out in an audit last week, it’s not like there’s just a long line of envelopes at the labs waiting to be tested. Actually, the kits have been sitting around law enforcement departments all over the state for decades.
The first time Captain Andi Taylor heard about thousands of forensic evidence kits from sexual assault cases not being tested by the labs was when a public records request came into the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. An assistant asked her what to do with all of the police reports. "I wasn’t aware that we had this problem," Taylor said. "It was my belief that the kits were being turned in, and they were being tested by the APD crime lab. That’s what I thought this entire time."
Taylor’s been the commander for the criminal investigations division of the department for a little over a year. Sixty detectives, eight sergeants and three lieutenants report to her. "What I did is I took on 488 reports, and we have a war room in the back here," she said. "There’s a huge pile of reports."
Some of them date back to the '80s. But some of them are pretty new, too, Taylor said. She started poring over each police report that was associated with an untested evidence kit from Bernalillo County, one by one. "It’s hard. It’s funny. I just kind of welled up with tears a little bit," she said. "It’s very hard to read some of these cases because it’s absolutely disgusting. And I have survivors in my family."
Taylor is sorting them into categories. The most urgent pile includes recent assaults where survivors aren’t sure who attacked them, and where DNA might crack the case. The DNA is also entered into a national database.
She said the FBI has agreed to analyze 30 kits from Bernalillo County in March. "We are going to do our absolute best to bring closure to these cases and to figure this mess out and to get results from these kits."
When a new kit comes in, Taylor now gives it the same priority as a homicide and orders it to be driven to the lab in Santa Fe. That’s because at the Albuquerque lab—the only other place in New Mexico where kits are tested—the so-called backlog is thousands deep.
One of the biggest problems, she said, is money. Money for advocates to reach out to survivors, money for the labs, money for detectives to investigate these cases, money to run trials and prosecute offenders. Not to mention that the cost of testing one kit at the state lab is between $400 and $500. "Listen, anything is better than nothing," Taylor said. "I’m at the point where I’m ready to go have a bake sale to raise money to test these kits."
Taylor also rewrote the vague, three-sentence policy about what detectives are supposed to do with sexual assault evidence. Only about one-fifth of law enforcement departments in New Mexico have a written policy, according to a statewide audit.
Connie Monahan of the New Mexico Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs has been leading the charge on getting kits sent to the labs to be tested for years. "Law enforcement agencies—there’s no way they could not have been aware of a growing pile of brown bags and white envelopes in a corner of their evidence rooms," she said.
There’s even a law on the books in New Mexico that says when a police report is filed about a sexual assault, and there’s an evidence kit, it has to be tested.
"Where we are now was totally preventable if people had followed the law," Monahan said. "But you can’t just have a law. You have to have the policy that says when you are delivering the samples you’ll do it within X number of days, the time, the process. You’ll have this form filled out."
The policies are lacking, Monahan said, and that leaves the decisions about evidence up to individual officers. Which can be a problem if a detective doesn’t believe the victim. The audit found that was one common reason kits aren’t sent for testing. "Why do we allow one person to have that amount of power and judgment in determining what happens next?" Monahan said.
Monahan’s helped bring about a mandatory hour of training on biological evidence and sexual assault for every officer in the state. She said they’ve got to start convincing officers that testing the DNA in these kits and logging it into the national database is important. It’s how serial rapists are caught all over the country—and right here at home.
Then it’s up to the state’s prosecutors to get a conviction.
This is the second story in a three-part series. Find the first report here. Tune in tomorrow when we talk about why more of these cases don't make it into a courtroom.