In evidence rooms from Miami Beach to Hialeah, old swabs of saliva and smudges of semen collected from thousands of rape victims are slowly being pulled off the shelf and sent to labs to be harvested for DNA that may hold the key to solving crimes around the country.
Whether for lack of a victim willing to testify, or because police already made an arrest, unprocessed rape kits have accumulated in Miami-Dade to a number that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement says is unmatched by any other county in the state. Last week, an FDLE survey estimated that more than 13,000 kits remain untested in Florida, with one in four stashed somewhere in Miami-Dade County.
In Tallahassee, authorities are beginning to debate how to test a bounty of forensic evidence that could cost state labs more than $30 million and years of effort. But a $2 million plan is already under way in Miami-Dade to carefully process what FDLE calls the state’s biggest backlog, and hopefully solve a few crimes along the way.
“We're going back to test all of those [kits] to put them in the DNA database to solve other cases, and hopefully even some of those [untested cold cases] with the technology that's available today,” said Stephanie Stoiloff, the Miami-Dade police commander who oversees the agency’s crime lab, which conducts forensic testing for all of the county.
Rape kits basically can solve crimes and exonerate people who are not offenders.
Katharine Westaway, victims’ advocate
Though Florida authorities began publicly pushing for the testing of old rape kits last year, Miami-Dade’s Forensic Services Bureau has been working to clear the county’s queue since 2014, when it conducted an audit of its own inventory. Last year, Stoiloff applied for a $2 million grant from the Manhattan district attorney, which, after solving 200 cold cases years ago by testing 17,000 old rape kits, offered to use millions in civil penalties levied on wayward New York banks to fund similar efforts around the country.
Close to $2 million was released in October to the county, which partnered with police in Miami, Miami Beach and Hialeah to secure the grant. Quickly, county analysts and scientists began sorting through a list of roughly 4,000 old samples, ferreting out cases that county records show actually were tested and slowly processing the estimated 2,900 kits that were never sent to the crime lab.
That process is ongoing. But Miami-Dade police are now methodically testing old kits in their lab to see if they’re positive for semen or saliva. If they are, the crime lab — which will handle thousands of forensic samples from new and active cases this year — sends most to Bode Cellmark, a private lab tasked with extracting DNA and analyzing it to tease out unique indicators that can identify an offender.
This “profile” can then be entered into an FBI database that matches profiles from different cases on local, state and national levels — a system that has enabled authorities to solve cold cases around the country and heightened urgency to process years-old rape kits. At a pace of about 150 a month, the county’s crime lab expects to test the last unprocessed kit sometime in mid-2017.
“If you rush you may miss something,” Stoiloff said.
Police say the public shouldn’t equate thousands of untested kits with thousands of rapists on the loose. The collection of old kits now being analyzed were kept from the lab because an arrest had already been made, or the offender wasn’t in question, rendering the necessity of the rape kit less urgent. In some old cases, police say the technology wasn’t advanced enough to yield results, the allegations were proven to be unfounded, or prosecutors wouldn’t take the case.
If Miami-Dade is committed to testing every kit that comes through, then I'm damn proud of my county
Katharine Westaway, victims’ advocate
Miami-Dade police say that since 2014, they’ve tested every new rape kit accompanied by a criminal complaint. Even before then, all rapes committed by an unknown assailant were sent to the lab, as is the case in the city of Miami, according to police chief Rodolfo Llanes. In Miami Beach, where there are 229 untested rape kits, police spokesman Ernesto Rodriguez said “the vast majority of these kits are from cases where non-prosecution forms were submitted by the victim.”
But past efforts in Detroit, Los Angeles, Houston and New York have resulted in hundreds of matches in the federal database and the prosecution of dozens of suspects. In Miami-Dade, the estimated number of untested kits represents close to 10 percent of the approximately 33,000 forensic samples in the system for the county.
“Rape kits basically can solve crimes and exonerate people who are not offenders. It's unacceptable that they're not being processed,” said Katharine Westaway, a former University of Miami professor who became a victims’ advocate on campus and is now forming her own consulting company for victims of sexual assault. “If Miami-Dade is committed to testing every kit that comes through, then I'm damn proud of my county.”
Untested rape kits have resulted in scandal in Miami in the past. In 2002, a serial rapist maneuvered unchecked along Coral Way as rape kits either took months to process or were never submitted by Miami police. But Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who at the time was an outraged commissioner representing the victimized community, said these are different circumstances.
Assistant Miami-Dade Police Director Alfredo Ramirez III said that if anything, the county’s department has been among the most aggressive in Florida in tackling the issue.
“There is no backlog. ‘Stranger’ cases and active cases, we work those proactively. The backlog cases we’re talking about didn’t meet that criteria,” he said. “We’ve been ahead of the game with this all along.”
Stoiloff said there’s no way to predict what the program will net in terms of arrests or solved cases. But she said it’s worth the time and effort. “There’s always hope.”