Virginia provides model for testing rape kits

Published 1:27 pm Thursday, May 12, 2016

By Rachel Beatrice and Kyle Taylor

Capital News Service

More than 140,000 untested rape evidence kits are collecting dust in crime labs throughout the country — denying justice for rape survivors waiting for the results and allowing rapists to commit more sexual assaults.

Virginia has joined a handful of states that have taken legislative action to end the backlog by adopting a law to ensure that the commonwealth’s untested kits will be processed quickly beginning July 1.

That’s when Senate Bill 291, sponsored by Sen. Richard Black, R-Leesburg, takes effect. Under the legislation, the more than 2,000 untested rape kits in Virginia must be tested immediately. In addition, after a doctor examines someone who has been raped and collects evidence of the crime with a rape kit, the kit must be tested for DNA within 60 days.

When Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed the legislation into law, the ceremony was attended by a rape survivor whose handwritten pamphlet prompted the General Assembly to act. Natasha Alexenko said she hopes other states will follow suit.

“This initiative will change America,” she said.

In 1993, Alexenko, then a 20-year-old college student in New York, was violently raped and robbed at gunpoint by an unknown assailant while returning to her apartment. She underwent a rape exam but would wait nearly 10 years for the results.

New York had a backlog of nearly 17,000 untested rape kits in 1999, according to the website EndTheBacklog.org. New York authorities then worked on the problem and cleared the state’s backlog entirely in 2003.

While waiting for the results of her rape exam, Alexenko become a vocal advocate for sexual assault awareness. Among other things, she made informational pamphlets and distributed them wherever she could.

In 2014, one of Alexenko’s pamphlets, which highlighted the national backlog of untested rape kits, found itself on Black’s desk.

Black admitted he was surprised to learn about the backlog. “I thought, ‘What are you talking about — untested rape test kits?’”

To understand the status of the issue in Virginia, Black initiated a statewide audit in 2015, with permission from the governor and conducted by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science. The audit revealed that Virginia had nearly 3,000 untested rape kits sitting in forensic labs — some dating to 1988.

Rape exams are physically intrusive and taken at a time when the victim typically is traumatized, Black said. “It’s an undertaking for a woman to undergo it, and then to have it (the evidence kit) just sit up on a shelf is a terrible thing.”

At the bill signing, McAuliffe said the state budget will provide $900,000 annually to clear the backlog of untested rape kits and to ensure that from now on, kits are tested within 60 days after the rape exam has been performed.

Attorney General Mark Herring, who attended the signing, said, “Once we get the backlog cleared out, this new bill should ensure that Virginia never finds itself in that situation again.”

“It is our responsibility,” McAuliffe said, “to provide certainty and ease the pain for women who are haunted by the fear that their attackers could still be out there and could still be free.”