New Mexico has one of the worst sexual assault rates in the nation. And thousands of envelopes of DNA evidence that could help identify repeat sexual offenders are sitting untested. We're taking a look at what it takes for survivors to provide that evidence in the first place.
No one’s sure how many untested sexual assault evidence kits there are languishing in evidence lockers around the United States. But we do have a number to start with here in New Mexico—about 5,500. State and local officials have known about it for a year, and even though the issue has gotten lots of attention, the number of untested kits hasn’t shrunk much at all.
"It absolutely breaks my heart that many of the ones I’ve done are in storage," said Gail Starr, the clinical coordinator for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE, where nurses collect DNA evidence.
Starr showed me around their space in Downtown Albuquerque. "We have several locked doors so it’s a very protected unit," she said. "It’s considered an offender-free facility."
Hospitals in the area refer everyone to SANE after a sexual assault. Starr opened the door to a warm, dim, comfortable looking room. "We have two interview rooms, and this is one of them," she said. "We have a couch. We have food and water. And we have blankets, especially during the winter. We give them to a patient, and they’re able to take it home."
Survivors don’t have to go to the police just because they reached out to SANE. Evidence kits can be stored for a year while they make their decision. They don’t degrade.
We entered an exam room, which looks just like most doctors’ offices you’ve seen, if a little friendlier. This one, though, is tailored to assault survivors. "It’s a hard exam to have done, but we make it as comfortable as we absolutely can," Starr said. "We have showers. We have clothes. So we can change them into something a little more comfortable."
Starr said they can provide some peace-of-mind about a person’s physical health. "It can be healing to have somebody make sure they’re OK down there, make sure their genitals are OK," she said. "The patient absolutely has control over their exam. If they just want the medication, they can get the medication and go. We talk to them about every part, and we try to re-empower them over what they can do."
The nurses do more than collect evidence and examine physical injuries. They can also help people avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections after an assault. Since they know now that DNA evidence isn’t always being tested, SANE is especially focused these days on the wellness aspect of its mission. "I’m hopeful," Starr said. "I’m optimistic that some good changes will come."
New Mexico’s untested sexual assault evidence kits are scattered around the state, but most are from Albuquerque, where the mayor announced earlier this year he would spend $200,000 to clear about 10 percent of them. But the state auditor’s new numbers show that so far, none of those old kits in Bernalillo County have been tested yet.
Cole Carvour is the volunteer advocate coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico. "Even where systems are falling through, I know so many individuals in the sex-crimes unit, in the DA’s Office, in the Rape Crisis Center that are absolutely outraged with the fact that this backlog exists," he said.
People are working hard, Carvour said, to make survivors don't feel like they fell off the map and no one cared. Survivors probably have a lot of questions, he said. And that's fair.
"I can’t imagine the frustration of feeling like perhaps everyone that I dealt with had failed me because this extremely violent thing happened to me, and someone is off free with no consequences for their actions," he said. "Why was my case less important? Or why did people doubt me? Or why has there been inaction around my case?"
Both Carvour and Starr said even if the criminal justice path isn’t right for a survivor—and it’s not for lots of people—there’s other help available for people who reach out after being assaulted for things like medical, therapeutic, or financial assistance.
And the audit says examining all of the DNA evidence—even when kits are old—honors victims who are fighting for justice.
But, say all of these old kits get tested, what’s to stop them from stacking up again? Figuring out where law enforcement is dropping the ball is a big part of answering that question.
This is the first report in a three-part series looking at sexual assault and the criminal justice system that fails so many survivors. Next, we'll look at how law enforcement is making policy changes because of the untested kits.