Tuesday, July 26, 2016

[San Mateo County] Rape kit backlog cleared: Civil grand jury reviews sheriff’s crime lab

In the wake of media accounts that numerous law enforcement agencies across the country had lengthy backlogs of untested rape kits, a San Mateo County Civil Grand Jury report announced the local Sheriff’s Office crime lab is caught up on processing evidence and well-equipped to comply with new state laws.
The grand jury released its findings Wednesday noting the Sheriff’s Office Forensics Lab cleared a backlog of nearly 70 untested rape kits since fall 2015, and recommended the county begin publishing an annual report on how many DNA samples are collected and processed.
The county’s civil grand jury — a non-regulatory body comprised of volunteers — opted to review the issue locally after a USA Today article found there were nearly 138 unprocessed kits in San Mateo County at the end of 2014.
When the grand jury began its investigation late last year, about 70 samples remained untested. But by February 2016, the lab at 50 Tower Road had cleared the backlog and was successfully processing new kits upon receipt, according to the report.
As evidence that can be vital to prosecuting sexual assault suspects, District Attorney Steve Wagstaffe praised the Sheriff’s Office and crime lab director for making this a priority.
“It’s crucial for us. Many of our cases very often will be made because of that type of work,” Wagstaffe said. “For every law enforcement agency and crime lab, this should be a priority. I knew our lab was caught up, I’m always very proud of what they do and they help us make cases.”
The report noted USA Today previously estimated nearly 70,000 rape kits across the country remained untested and neighboring Alameda County had a backlog of nearly 2,000 kits a few years ago.
San Mateo County’s lab is processing an average of three to five rape kits per week and for 2016 cases, an individual kit takes about 41 days. However, high-profile cases can be processed within a few days, according to the report.
A member of the crime lab and Sheriff’s Office was not immediately available to comment on why there had been a backlog or how long certain kits had sat untested.
The evidence in a rape kit must be gathered by a sexual assault nurse examiner at a medical facility and typically includes swabbing for fluids, combing for hairs and taking scrapings from fingernails. Photographs may also be taken and the entire process can take between four to six hours, according to the report.
The California’s Sexual Assault Victims’ DNA Bill of Rights, a new state law that went into effect this year, recommends all rape kits be processed within 120 days and victims can request notification on the status of their tests. Although most of the new recommendations are not mandatory, the county is well positioned to comply with the law, according to the report.
There are 18 separate police jurisdictions throughout San Mateo County, however, all rape kits are collected at the San Mateo Medical Center’s Keller Center for Family Violence Intervention. This centralized system allows the lab to pick up kits from throughout the county at one location every week, according to the report. After the samples are tested, they’re returned to the police jurisdiction, according to the report.
The Keller Center is one of the first of its kind in the state where an entire county’s rape kits are gathered in one place. It also provides space where police can interview victims, is considered a non-threatening space and is one of the few in the Bay Area that serves adults, adolescents and children all in one place, according to the report.
The report praised both the forensic lab and Keller Center, noting prime reasons for timely processing such evidence includes encouraging victims to report crimes, prosecuting cases and deterring offenders.
Ensuring samples are entered into the national Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, database is also critical as it can more quickly identify suspected perpetrators that might otherwise remain on the street, according to the report.
Moving forward, the civil grand jury recommends the Sheriff’s Office adopt the goal of meeting or beating the 120-day testing period outlined in the new law. And, as the lab already maintains records of how many kits it receives and tests, it recommends the information be made public through an annual report that also includes how many entries are made into CODIS.
Wagstaffe said cops can use DNA to solve a variety of crimes, citing a recent burglary in which law enforcement may have otherwise had no leads if the suspect hadn’t left blood at the scene.
The lab is “doing great DNA work,” Wagstaffe said. “I’m proud of our county. It’s one of the role models for certainly the state, if not the country.”
July 14, 2016
San Mateo Daily Journal
By Samantha Weigel

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