Attorney General Mark R. Herring this week announced the completion of his project to eliminate Virginia’s rape kit backlog. As part of his initiatives, 2,665 previously untested rape kits have been tested, including kits that had gone untested for decades. The testing was part of Herring’s $3.4 million project, in conjunction with the Department of Forensic Science and local law enforcement, to completely eliminate the backlog of untested rape kits and transform the way Virginia responds to sexual violence. According to End the Backlog State Responses, a National initiative advocating for changes in the way PERKs are handled, Virginia is just the seventh state in the country to eliminate its rape kit backlog.
As a result of eliminating Virginia’s untested kit backlog:
- 2,665 kits were tested.
- 851 DNA profiles have been uploaded into CODIS, the national Combined DNA Index System.
- 354 “hits” have been sent to law enforcement agencies for further investigation.
- At least 1 charge after identification through the PERK backlog project, with more anticipated as localities continue to reopen and investigate cases.
“Virginia’s backlog of untested rape kits has been completely eliminated, and it is never coming back,” said Herring. “Eliminating this backlog has been a long time coming, and it has taken a lot of
work, but it means a wrong has been righted, that justice is closer for more survivors, and that Virginia is a safer place.
“These kits represented a survivor’s trauma, and they could have held key evidence in bringing a perpetrator to justice, but they had been pushed to the side and never dealt with. And for many survivors, the fact that their kit was never tested denied them a sense of security and justice or even closure that is critical for healing from such a traumatic experience.
“Elimination of this backlog closes one chapter in our Commonwealth’s approach to preventing and investigating sexual violence, and allows us to continue writing a new one in which these crimes are taken seriously every time, survivors are treated with respect and compassion, and the Commonwealth is a partner in the pursuit of justice and healing.”
Eliminating Virginia’s backlog of physical evidence recovery kits (also known as PERKs or rape kits) was supported by two grants totaling $3.4 million secured by Attorney General Herring and the Virginia Department of Forensic Science (DFS). The first grant provided $1.4 million to test almost 1,800 kits that had been collected prior to 2014 and the testing on that phase of the project was completed in March 2019.
The second grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) provided another $1 million to test almost 900 kits that had been collected between 2014 and 2016.
“Testing all kits demonstrates to survivors that their case is important. It also allows us to develop investigative leads and potentially identify perpetrators and link sexual assault crimes together,” said Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran. “The newly implemented PERK Tracking System provides a mechanism for Virginia to identify kits that are not appropriately
submitted for testing and to prevent this type of backlog from occurring again.”
As part of this process, Attorney General Herring, DFS, and a steering committee of law enforcement, prosecutors, healthcare providers, and victim advocates created and executed a plan to safely transport thousands of untested kits to a private lab for testing in a way that preserved the integrity of the evidence for use in future criminal cases. Once testing was completed, developed DNA profiles were sent to DFS for review and eligible profiles were uploaded into CODIS, and DFS
reported any hits back to local agencies for further investigation. This process remains ongoing as agencies re-review cases in light of this new DNA evidence.
“For nearly five years, our dedicated scientists have worked overtime to perform data reviews of the private laboratory results and upload eligible profiles for CODIS searching,” said DFS Director Linda Jackson. “This commitment reflects the importance of this project and our desire to assist in developing investigative leads to help the survivors pursue justice.”
In 2016, Virginia law was changed to require nearly all PERKs be tested without delay, meaning that once the backlog of untested kits is eliminated it should never return.
The SAKI Grant has also allowed DFS to create Virginia’s first-ever statewide PERK tracking system a secure, comprehensive electronic tracking system that allows survivors, DFS, law enforcement agencies, and hospitals to know the status and location of a PERK. With the tracking system, PERKs are tracked at each step in the process, including their distribution as uncollected kits to collection sites (e.g., hospitals) through collection, transfer to law enforcement, submission to the laboratory for analysis, and return to the law enforcement agency for storage. As of July 1, 2020 all agencies handling kits are required to update the status of each kit, and survivors may use the system to check the location and testing status of their kits at any time.
“Virginia has made significant progress in the past thirty years, but justice for survivors of sexual assault can still be elusive. Addressing Virginia’s sexual assault kit backlog has been a progressive step forward for survivors in the Commonwealth. We are grateful that Attorney General Herring’s work to eliminate the backlog has been swift and coordinated. This work has helped to ensure that our responses are as trauma informed as possible – increasing the likelihood that survivors will report violence and making it easier for survivors to make informed decisions regarding pathways towards their healing and justice,” said Kristi Van Audenhove, Executive Director of the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance.
“Every victim represented by those baskets, boxes and bags with viable evidence deserved to have a voice. I would like to thank Attorney General Herring and our Department of Forensic Sciences for hearing those voices. This initiative that has focused on the backlog of rape kits tells our citizens that Virginia cares about victims of sexual assault. From the bottom of my heart I wish to add my thanks to all who had a part in this,” said Debbie Smith a sexual assault survivor, advocate, and founder of H-E-A-R-T, Inc.
“We are pleased with the progress this multidisciplinary team has done. These kits throughout the state had not been sent for testing for various reasons. Through the years we know that technology has improved and localities have changed their methodology. Spotsylvania has certainly seen this first hand, as we were the first in the state to have someone charged as a result of an untested kit. These victims deserve to find justice and start the healing process,” said Spotsylvania Sheriff Roger Harris.
In addition to fully eliminating Virginia’s backlog of pre-2016 untested rape kits, Attorney General Herring has also led efforts to invest in training and infrastructure that will ensure a more survivor-centered, trauma-informed response to sexual violence by Virginia law enforcement agencies.
Herring and his team have, and will continue to, host trainings and provide support for law enforcement, prosecutors, and victim advocates across the Commonwealth on trauma-informed, survivor-centered techniques for handling sexual assault cases, overcoming the unique challenges of investigating and prosecuting sexual violence cases, and the best way to reinvestigate cold cases.
A full breakdown of the kits by locality can be found here