Miami-Dade County

Miami PD to begin work on state’s largest backlog of untested rape kits

An evidence bag from a sexual assault case is pictured in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston.
An evidence bag from a sexual assault case is pictured in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. AP

An effort to identify and process every untested rape kit in Florida has found that more than 3,700 exist in Miami-Dade County, including 2,243 held by Miami police alone — the most of any law enforcement agency in the state.

Out of 13,500 untested kits statewide, more than one in four exists in Miami-Dade, according to a Florida Department of Law Enforcement report released Monday. Even more striking, in a state where the backlog appears to be worse than initially reported, the city and county hold more than one in three rape kits that law enforcement agencies believe “should be” tested.

Police officials defend their handling of the kits, saying the unprocessed evidence isn’t the result of shoddy investigations. Most kits weren’t sent to a crime lab because the identity of the accused wasn’t in dispute, they say, or because the victim didn’t want to pursue the case.

“The reality is, normally, most agencies that have the volume of work we have do not send rape kits when the identity of the offender is not in question,” said Miami Police Chief Rodolfo Llanes. “But what if that guy rapes somebody else? Shouldn’t we have sent all these kits in? That’s the ongoing debate.”

But amid a national push to process all DNA evidence from alleged sexual assaults, Miami-Dade’s crime lab, which also processes evidence from city of Miami police, will begin slogging through thousands of old samples in the coming years in order to ensure crucial evidence isn’t filed away in a South Florida evidence room, Llanes said.

Testing old kits has resulted in arrests and cracked cold cases. In Houston, for example, testing of 6,663 samples resulted in 850 matches in a federal DNA database and the prosecution of 29 suspects, the FDLE report states. In New York, the testing of 17,000 samples resulted in the prosecution of 200 cold cases.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi announced in September that the state would devote $300,000 to determine the extent of untested rape kits, which are taken after alleged sexual assaults in order to preserve forensic evidence. From mid-August to mid-December, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement surveyed police agencies, who self-reported a total of 13,435 untested rape kits.

That’s about 25 percent more than previous estimates. And some police departments, like Miami Beach, did not participate, so the number is likely higher. Other agencies reported they had untested kits but none that “should” be tested.

“Each untested kit represents a missed opportunity to bring justice and healing to a survivor and increased safety to a community,” said Ilse Knect, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has pushed for rape kit testing across the country and in South Florida. “Mandating the swift testing of every sexual assault kit sends a powerful message to survivors that they — and their cases — matter.”

In its report Monday, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement recommended testing all kits “in the interest of public safety.” For the state agency, which runs several labs across Florida, that means slogging through a “backlog” of 8,600 tests, a process that could take more than eight years at a possible cost of $32 million, according to some FDLE projections.

During a visit to Tampa Monday, Gov. Rick Scott noted the importance of rape kit funding. Asked if Florida could afford more than $30 million to eliminate the backlog, Scott didn’t specify an amount but said, “I’m going to work with the Legislature and make sure it’s fully funded. We’re going to make sure that we fund public safety.”

Even if the state funds tests at its FDLE labs, that won’t pay for tests at county crime labs, like the one run by Miami-Dade Police, which according to an agency website has a forensic biology staff of 18 scientists who process evidence from more than 2,100 homicide, robbery and sexual assault cases each year.

Miami-Dade Police did not respond Monday to a request for an interview, so it’s unclear how many old kits will be tested, how quickly, and at what cost. But both Miami and Miami-Dade police said all of their combined 3,593 untested kits should be processed, and said they would slowly begin sending the old kits to the crime lab.

Times/Herald Tallahassee Bureau reporter Jeremy Wallace and Tampa Bay Times reporter Thad Moore contributed to this report.

David Smiley: 305-376-2284, @newsbysmiley

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