Bill to fund processing rape evidence advances

Uriel J. Garcia
The Santa Fe New Mexican
Kathy Meredith demonstrates on Nov. 20 how she sets up a sexual assault kit at Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico in Farmington.

SANTA FE — Senate and House panels advanced measures on Monday to help address a chronic backlog of rape kits that have lingered in police agencies across the state for years without being tested for valuable DNA evidence.

The Senate Judiciary Committee moved forward a bill allocating $2.3 million to hire three more forensic scientists and expand a laboratory to process untested rape kits for DNA evidence.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cisco McSorley, D-Albuquerque, now goes to the Senate Finance Committee.

Another measure, seeking $1.2 million for the same task of unearthing DNA evidence from the rape kits, has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque.

The House Judiciary Committee also advanced Barnes’ bill on Monday to the Appropriations and Finance Committee.

The bills will face more scrutiny in their respective finance committees during a year when revenue projections have flattened because of declining oil prices, one of the state’s leading sources of tax revenue.

Before the start of the 30-day legislative session, Cabinet Secretary Greg Fouratt of the Department of Public Safety asked for at least $1.7 million to eliminate the backlog.

Fouratt, acting last year after complaints by advocates of sexual-assault victims, sent out a survey asking the state’s 130 law enforcement agencies how many untested rape kits they had. About 125 agencies responded, and Fouratt’s agency announced a total of 5,400.

Seventy-three percent of the untested rape kits are in the state’s population center. The Albuquerque Police Department has 3,476 untested rape kits and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office another 472.

Albuquerque police have their own forensics lab to process rape kits. The Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office also uses Albuquerque’s crime lab. All other agencies in the state send their rape kits to the Department of Public Safety’s crime lab for processing.

After police receive a report of sexual assault, a nurse collects evidence such as saliva, semen and blood by swabbing the victim’s body. That evidence is then stored in what police call a rape kit. The kit can also include undergarments or other clothes that may contain the victim’s or the perpetrator’s DNA. The police agency then keeps the evidence for DNA analysis.

If DNA testing is done, the results can be checked against a state database of other sex crimes, some of which may have an identified suspect or even someone who’s been convicted of a rape. New Mexico’s Katie’s Law requires jailers to obtain a DNA sample from everyone arrested on suspicion of a felony.

Fouratt’s survey didn’t ask why the police agencies had not tested rape kits for DNA, and the agencies didn’t provide a reason.

But a legislative finance report analyzing the House bill, citing a 2007 report by the National Institute of Justice, says the main reason police agencies don’t send DNA evidence to a lab for testing is that they may not fully understand the value of forensic evidence in solving a case.

A sexual assault kit as seen on Nov. 20 at Sexual Assault Services of Northwest New Mexico in Farmington.