Testing Justice: Addressing Tucson's untested rape kits - Tucson News Now

Testing Justice: Addressing Tucson's untested rape kits

(Source: Tucson News Now) (Source: Tucson News Now)
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TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) -

With as many as 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide, the controversial issue hits too close to home for sexual assault victims across southern Arizona.

But is this really a problem in our community as well? And if so, how many untested kits are in Tucson today?

"The fact that there is a backlog in sex kits of unknown suspects is a false narrative," said Assistant Chief John Leavitt of Tucson Police Department. "Those cases go to the front of the line or are the very first cases to be looked at."

But the explanation doesn't end there.

"DNA technology is a guilty person's worst enemy and the innocent person's greatest friend," Vice President Joe Biden recently said in a national report about untested rape kits.

"Every kit represents a horrific occurrence that a victim has experienced," said Kesha Gibson-Carter, executive director of the Rape Crisis Center.

Using that as a platform, advocates nationwide aligned themselves with the hot-button topic.

"It was the victims who suffered, the victims who were ignored, the victims who were not heard," said Amy Weirich, a prominent district attorney in Shelby County, TN.

"I felt a hand lift up my dress and I was like kicking with my feet, telling him to stop," a woman said after being drugged and raped near the University of Arizona campus. "I couldn't move. I couldn't open my eyes, (but I felt) someone was kissing me."

"There's no justice for women who are raped," said Debbie Grivetti, a concerned local mother. "I think all rape kits should be tested, period."

This is a feeling shared by millions who believe every police agency is either too financially strapped or too backed up to properly process DNA cases.

MOBILE USERS: End the Backlog's interactive map showing untested rape kits by region is available HERE.

Leavitt disagrees.

As head of TPD's Investigative Services Bureau, Leavitt is also in charge of the agency's $35 million crime lab, which tests about 3,000 DNA samples every year.

"We do the cases where there's a greatest danger to the public first," Leavitt said. "And I can say that any sex assault case where there's an unknown suspect is of the highest priority."

Such was the case this year when a woman was attacked by an unknown assailant along a trail in the Rillito River Park.

Within 48 hours, rape kit results revealed a suspect match and an arrest was promptly made - a huge victory for TPD and the community.

But that wasn't a typical case. Victims usually do know their attackers, officials said. When they do, the issue of consent is usually more critical than DNA.

"DNA can prove a lot of things, but it doesn't speak to consent," Leavitt said.

Which goes hand-in-hand with TPD's untested rape kits.

"The actual number of kits could vary from 1,000 to 2,500 if you look at that," Leavitt said, citing a total of 399 sexual assaults in Tucson last year alone.

If DNA findings do not provide evidentiary value to prosecutors, there's a good chance the kit will not be tested, Leavitt said.

That doesn't mean the case is dropped, but it does add to the so-called backlog.

The good news is more kits will be tested thanks to a $1 million grant awarded to TPD's crime lab. Processing each kit costs the city about $1,500. This grant allows for more testing on more types of crimes, Leavitt said.

It may not be enough to convict somebody on an consent case. But it could yield a wealth of information if that person's DNA matches the profile from another sexual assault, where the suspect is unknown.

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