Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida shoved rape kit results to the back of the fridge

Crime laboratory analysts Carolyn Krieger (front left) and Jared Baum work in a DNA lab at the FDLE’s facility in Tampa, on Sept. 10, 2015. Florida's law enforcement agencies have been facing burgeoning financial troubles, making it harder for them to retain employees and slowing their ability to process evidence.
Crime laboratory analysts Carolyn Krieger (front left) and Jared Baum work in a DNA lab at the FDLE’s facility in Tampa, on Sept. 10, 2015. Florida's law enforcement agencies have been facing burgeoning financial troubles, making it harder for them to retain employees and slowing their ability to process evidence. Tampa Bay Times

Last year, after Hollywood’s reform-minded police chief ordered a department-wide audit, 94 untested rape kits were discovered in an evidence room refrigerator.

They had been there, some of them, for years. I thought, so this was how a regressive, male-dominated police force regards sexual assault. Stick the damn evidence in the fridge and forget it.

But what else would you expect of Hollywood PD, where the union was hell-bent on getting rid of Chief Frank Fernandez and his unwanted notions about modern policing? (The embattled Fernandez lasted less than three years before resigning in May to take a job in Coral Gables.)

The old rape kits were sent off to the Broward crime lab. Within a few weeks, a suspect in a 2006 rape in a Hollywood park was arrested based on a DNA match. Police had suspects in three other assaults.

It was as if — until someone shook up the status quo — rape victims hadn’t mattered. Rapists weren’t a priority. Such negligent disregard. It was so Hollywood.

No. It was so Florida.

Hollywood, as it turns out, wasn’t some anachronistic outlier. The whole damn state has been shunting rape evidence to the back of the cooler.

Last week, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s survey of 262 police agencies in the state found a backlog of 10,900 untested rape kits. Probably more.

The FDLE report counted 7,168 kits that “should have been submitted” to the state lab. But there may have been good reason why local police agencies hadn’t bothered. The FDLE lab itself — underfunded, understaffed — takes an average of 88 days to complete a single test.

Last year, the state lab managed to process just 2,400 kits. Meaning it could take years to beat down the backlog, even without new cases. Meanwhile, we’re paying state crime analysts an average $39,370 a year — $20,000 a year less than the national average. And they’re leaving as quickly as they can find another job.

And crimes go unsolved. Kellie Greene, founder of Washington-based Speaking Out About Rape, talked of a “wealth of information sitting in those kits. DNA that can link to other crimes, can identify serial offenders, can exonerate the wrongly convicted.”

Greene, from Orlando, was a rape victim herself in Florida in 1994. Three years passed before her kit was processed. But the tardy results identified a known rapist and cleared another suspect.

She said we owe it to victims who have had the courage to submit to such invasive procedures. Test the kits already.

The problem, of course, is money. The FDLE has asked for an extra $35 million in next year’s budget to hire lab techs and upgrade equipment. In a state that just cut taxes by $400 million, that sounds doable.

Attorney General Pam Bondi has been the state official pushing hard to fix this long fermenting disgrace. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that it has been women trying to make rape kit testing a priority in Florida. I doubt it.

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