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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, December 05, 2017 1:00 am


Shameful backlog

Untested rape kits retain evidentiary value

When Delbert Buckwald completes his 10-year sentence on a rape conviction next week, he won't be released from his Mansfield, Ohio, prison cell. Instead, he'll begin serving a minimum 30 years for additional convictions. The 2014 convictions were based on rape kit analyses that followed newspaper reports of thousands of untested kits in Ohio.

Buckwald, whose victims included a 12-year-old girl abducted and assaulted as she walked to school, was one of more than 135 people indicted as a result of DNA testing that followed the Cleveland Plain Dealer's reporting.

Indiana has nearly 5,400 untested sexual assault kits, according to an audit by the Indiana State Police. About half are linked to false-reporting cases, incidents with no crime reported or cases that have proceeded without the DNA evidence. But it's unclear why 2,560 kits remain untested.

A resolution authored by state Sen. Michael Crider, R-Greenfield, urged the state police to conduct the audit. Crider said last week he will push for the kits to be tested.

“Every one that is close to being appropriate for testing should be being submitted to the lab,” he said at a news conference. “Each one of those kits represents some lady's life.”

Just as important is Crider's proposal to adopt legislation addressing the backlog, with recommendations from state police on how to improve handling of the kits. 

“A particular goal of obtaining factual data on the number of untested kits is to aid in the development of a working statewide cooperative approach to ensure that all kits in Indiana that need to be tested are submitted for analysis, both those from a historical standpoint and also those kits going forward,” according to the state police report, which noted some of the existing kits don't require testing, but “most kits collected should be considered for submission to analyze as additional investigative leads, or in some instances, the identification of the perpetrator can be determined.”

Beginning next year, the state will expand its DNA index system to include samples not only from convicted felons but also from individuals arrested on felony charges. The Combined DNA Index System is linked to a federal database. 

“Of significance is the fact CODIS consistently operates with a 'hit rate' of 48 percent,” according to the report. “Which basically means that suspects or investigative leads are potentially identified in nearly half of the cases submitted with DNA evidence.”

Only 15 untested kits are in storage in Allen County, compared with 478 in St. Joseph County and 256 in Marion County. 

Processing the untested kits is not an inexpensive proposition. Major Steve Holland of the Indiana State Police Laboratory System said each kit would cost about $1,000 to process.

The likelihood that testing could solve open cases and – more important – prevent additional crimes makes it worthwhile to process a kit if authorities determine there is value in analyzing it. It could put an offender behind bars or ensure another Delbert Buckwald remains there.