More than 200 rape kits sit untested in the Tri-Cities

(WJHL) – Just hours after the most painful and emotionally scarring moments of Heather Moore’s life, every inch of her body went under the microscope. As if the multiple sexual assaults Moore suffered at the hands of her estranged husband weren’t bad enough, she said the next several hours felt almost as horrible.

“I was very traumatized, in shock still,” she recalled. “Mentally, it was horrific. Physically,you still have the pain.”

As a nurse collected a rape kit, Moore says it felt like an eternity.

“It’s like you’re on display,” Moore said. “The embarrassment, you were splayed out like a lab rat and being prodded and probed.

Tessa Proffitt is a forensic nurse at Johnson City Medical Center. She and her co-workers have an important job when it comes to rapes. Not only do they treat victims for their injuries, they are also the first in a long line of evidence custodians. It is a responsibility Proffitt does not take lightly.

“To do an exam, you’re looking at three to five hours,” Proffitt said. “It’s very tedious. It’s very time consuming, but that’s a good thing. I don’t want somebody rushing through my evidence kit if I was sitting on that stretcher.”

Collecting a rape kit is a process that is even worse than it sounds, complete with swabs and photographs, but it is critical if needed in a criminal investigation. Any time someone files a report of sexual assault a rape kit is required.

The Bristol, Tennessee Police department tested Moore’s kit after her estranged husband, who is now in prison, raped her. The evidence helped lead to his conviction, but what if the department had just let that evidence sit there untested for years?

“With what you have to go through, I would be furious beyond words,” Moore said. “I can’t imagine. Why would you not test it?”

We wondered the same thing.

Public records requests revealed of the 9,062 untested rape kits in Tennessee, 203 of them or about 2% are locked away in evidence rooms here in the Tri-Cities.

Some argue the boxes of evidence full of DNA samples, which do not expire, could help connect known rapists to other sexual assaults. Nationwide, advocates are pushing agencies to send those untested kits to the lab to get them tested and entered into a national DNA database. The federal government has even dedicated millions of dollars to the effort.

A new state law, sponsored by Sen. Mark Norris (R-District 32), a legislator from the Memphis-area, required departments to take an inventory of rape kits earlier this year. Sen. Norris says the next step is for each agency to come up with a plan to prioritize which kits need to be tested first, if and when additional federal money comes through next year.

“You really need to come up with a game plan,” Sen. Norris said. “My instinct tells me if you have evidence that can be tested, it should be.”

Our investigation revealed over the years the Johnson City Police Department has only sent off rape kits for testing roughly a quarter of the time. Records revealed of the 129 rape kits the city has collected only 37 were tested.

“It depends where the investigation goes,” JCPD Chief Mark Sirois said. “It all rests in the investigation.”

The chief says those investigations have rarely required DNA from rape kits. Chief Sirois says some of the rape kits are connected to cases that turned out to not be criminal, where victims changed their stories, were not truthful or did not want to press charges or even cooperate. He says others are linked to slam dunk criminal investigations.

“If you’ve made an arrest, you can develop a suspect, develop probable cause, place that person under arrest without utilizing the rape kit,” he said.

The chief says historically, his department has only requested DNA testing when investigators were left with real questions. For example, he says testing is necessary when they need help identifying or confirming a suspect. The chief is convinced his department investigated every one of the cases fully. He says he is also proud of his department’s arrest rate of 56%, which he says is much higher than the state average of 20% in 2013.

Still, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation says it will test any of those kits for free.

“At TBI, we are absolutely committed to testing each and every kit that is sent to us for analysis,” TBI spokesperson Josh DeVine said. “Our mission at TBI is ‘That guilt should not escape nor innocence suffer,’ and at the end of the day we really see this type of work as an important component to executing that mission in the state.”

Why not take advantage of the free service?

“That makes sense, because of the trend that’s there now and if you have the ability to do that now, that’s something that you’d definitely want to look into,” Chief Sirois said. “Anything in that regard that will help a victim we want to be a part of of course.”

That said, not everyone sees the potential benefit.

Take a smaller police department like the one in Bristol. Records reveal Chief Blaine Wade’s department has 18 untested rape kits. He feels confident if the agency did send any of the kits off, they would not turn up anything of value.

“Would it be worth the tax dollars for someone to analyze a kit when we have a victim say, ‘I made up the story,’ and we send a kit anyway?” Chief Wade wondered. “Any kits that would have any validity in testing efforts, we would have already sent them off. Just because it’s collected doesn’t mean it’s worthwhile to send.”

Moore has a different opinion. She believes all untested kits should be sent off.

“Why would you just leave it sitting there?” she said. “With what you have to go through and what you’ve already been through, why would you not?”

The effort of advocates like Moore has already won over at least one other department. The Kingsport Police Department, which records reveal has eight untested rape kits, has since updated its rape kit policy.

“Our current policy is that we send all rape kits to the TBI lab for analysis; however, there are potential exceptions,” Chief David Quillin said. “Let’s say a report is made and a kit is collected and the immediate, subsequent investigation determines that the report is unfounded. In that case the kit would not be sent. Our goal is that no rape kits will be in storage without a destruction order or proper analysis paperwork attached. We are certainly aware of other (law enforcement) agencies that have been scrutinized because they may have had numerous kits sitting idle for long periods of time with no proper documentation attached. We want to avoid finding ourselves in that situation. And yes, we have recently tweaked our policy to get (to) the position we are comfortable with what our process should look like.”

Police Agency     Number of Untested Rape Kits 
Johnson City Police Department    92 
Greeneville Police Department  47
Bristol Police Department  18 
Greene County Sheriff’s Office   17 
Kingsport Police Department 
Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office  7
Sullivan County Sheriff’s Office  7
ETSU Public Safety  4
Carter County Sheriff’s Office
Total in the Tri-Cities  203
Total in Tennessee   9,062 
*Source:  Police and TBI records

Despite Kingsport’s process, the Greeneville Police Department has a similar opinion to that of Bristol. According to records, Greeneville has 47 untested rape kits.

“Our untested rape kits date back to the 1980s,” Chief Terry Cannon said. “Many of them involve cases that cannot be prosecuted, so there is no need to test them. Some of the cases involve boyfriends and girlfriends, and in some cases, the victims would not cooperate with the investigators by not returning calls or not giving statements. In more than 30 years, it is easy to accumulate such cases, but it is our opinion that there is no need to pursue them.”

Back in Johnson City, Chief Sirois feels confident in his department’s past policies. That said, he’s open to looking into rape kit testing further, especially if it can be used in crime prevention.

“The police department enjoys and excellent partnership with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and often depends upon its resources to support effective investigations for the citizens of Johnson City,” the chief said. “As such, we will always cooperate and coordinate with the TBI on this or any other criminal matter, in any measures that improve our capabilities to serve victims and apprehend offenders.”

Copyright 2014 WJHL. All rights reserved.


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