State puts $6M into effort to test old rape kits

Posted September 19, 2019 7:19 p.m. EDT

— Legislation signed Thursday by Gov. Roy Cooper provides major funding for testing evidence in sexual assault cases and puts new requirements on law enforcement agencies to send rape kits to the labs more quickly.

Authorities across North Carolina have been working for more than a year to eliminate a backlog of untested rape kits. Early last year, a survey found more than 15,000 sitting on evidence lockers at police departments and sheriff's offices statewide.

Since then, federal grant funds have been used to test more than 900, and the results from 20 percent of those led to matches in the state's DNA database.

Winston-Salem police used the results of tests on two kits from the 1990s to arrest suspects this year, including one this week, police Lt. Eric Montgomery said.

"Years ago, DNA evidence was new, somewhat limited and very expensive, which limited our ability to test some evidence," Montgomery said at an afternoon news conference. "Technologies exist today that allow us to be able to test those things."

The Standing Up for Rape Victims Act of 2019 includes $6 million in state money over the next two years for testing kits – the biggest sum to date the state has put toward clearing the backlog.

Attorney General Josh Stein said the additional funding will help in clearing the backlog, but the project will still likely take years to finish. Still, he said the effort is worth it for the chance to bring justice to victims who’ve been waiting for years.

"Each kit represents a person who experienced an awful trauma and to whom we owe our utmost dedication to try to bring justice," Stein said. "Frankly, the state has not done right by those people till today.

Krista Maiden is one of those victims. She was sexually assaulted in Charlotte in 2015, but her rape kit wasn’t tested until 2017, and it was mishandled, so the man who attacked her is still free. She said the new law shows the state is finally standing up for survivors of sexual assault.

"Survivors like me will not have to wait for two years to hear the result of their kit analysis," Maiden said at the news conference. "Survivors like me will not have to deal with the issue of kit contamination. Each of these boxes represent a tragic and traumatic event. They represent a human being."

The legislation also requires local agencies to send rape kits to to an accredited lab for testing within 45 days of collection, and requires more training for responders.

Last year, the state implemented a bar code system on all new rape kits so authorities and victims can track the evidence as it moves through the system. Stein said that and the new 45-day requirement should ensure another backlog never develops.

The rape kit funding was among four "mini budget" bills Cooper signed Thursday. The others provide funding for disaster recovery and improved prison and school safety.