Sexual assault evidence languishes in state

Morgan Lee
The Associated Press
New Mexico

SANTA FE — New Mexico state auditors have identified 5,406 evidence kits from rapes and sexual assaults that never were tested for DNA to help identify criminals.

The Office of the State Auditor announced Friday the results of the exhaustive search for untested sexual assault kits at police agencies and evidence vaults across New Mexico.

Bits of hair or swabbings from a victim’s body are collected for the kits, and they can help investigators solve a crime or find links between resolved and open investigations. Test results are entered into a national database designed to help identify serial offenders.

States including Kentucky, Ohio, West Virginia and Nevada are wrestling with how to reduce their own backlogs.

Some of New Mexico’s untested kits date back to the 1980s — and may still prove useful.

A 2003 law in New Mexico puts the statute of limitations on hold for sexual assaults in cases when a so-called rape kit has not been tested, said attorney Sarita Nair, chief government accountability officer for the state auditor. “If you have a rape and you do not have a suspect and you have a DNA evidence kit, then that statute of limitation does not start to run until that kit is tested,” she said.

Legal ambiguities still exist for crimes committed before 2003. There is no statute of limitation for criminal sexual penetration involving children under 13 or involving extreme violence and injury, Nair said.

State auditors followed up with dozens of local police agencies in New Mexico that failed to respond to earlier inquiries about untested rape kits by the Department of Public Safety.

State Auditor Tim Keller said his agency plans to review internal controls within law enforcement that led to the backlog and identify ways to speed up the testing and analysis of the evidence kits.

Financial hurdles also stand in the way of reducing the backlog. Testing a rape kit can cost as much as $4,000.