WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Stories about backlogs processing rape kits have been making national headlines this year. In June, we reported that many rape victims in Wilmington were waiting two years to get DNA results after being raped. Prosecutors told us in some cases, the lengthy delays cost them a conviction.
The North Carolina State Crime Lab has been largely blamed for the backlog, but WECT has learned that's not the whole story. It's not uncommon for a rape kit to sit in the evidence vault for months, or even years in some cases before being sent off to the state lab for processing.
"I think there's a lot of misperceptions about the crime laboratory," Lab Director John Byrd explained during a tour of the State Crime Lab. When he took over as director of the state lab in June of last year, he said they were in dire straits. They had departments within the lab with over 50 percent vacancy rates, and in many cases it takes over a year to train new hires.
The salary the state was offering lab analysts contributed to the vacancy rate. It was significantly lower than the regional average for analysts at public labs. Nearby public laboratories were offering $20,000 more in salary for analysts to do the same work. The General Assembly recently increased salaries for state lab analysts to narrow that gap, and also increased the number of funded positions at the lab to help with the backlog.
Byrd says improvements in pay and better hiring practices have helped him fill many of the vacant positions. Byrd and his team also redesigned the lab itself, to make it more efficient for analysts to do their job, and the state is now building an additional crime lab in western North Carolina to increase evidence testing capacity and limit the distance lab analysts have to drive to testify in criminal cases.
Until recently, ours was the only state lab in the country that didn't have case management guidelines. Byrd says such guidelines have now been developed and implemented to make it more manageable to process the evidence coming to them in a timely manner, without sacrificing quality.
For example, the NC State Crime Lab now limits how many evidence samples a police department can initially submit for processing from a criminal case. Before, detectives might submit 150 pieces of evidence from a single crime scene, which is extremely time consuming for lab analysts to process.
More importantly, lab officials say submitting such big batches of evidence, much of which has marginal investigative value, is not typically necessary or helpful to prove a case.
The lab now limits the number of evidence samples from a single crime scene detectives can send with their first submission, advising agencies which samples are most likely to glean usable evidence for the investigation. If necessary, additional evidence samples can be submitted to the state lab later.
Further, the lab is now reaching out to police agencies across the state at regular intervals to make sure that detectives still need evidence processed that they have submitted to the state lab.
It is not unusual for a defendant to accept a plea bargain after evidence has been submitted, or a rape victim to decide she no longer wants to press charges.
Taking the evidence for those cases out of the queue for processing at the state lab helps reduces the backlog, and allows analysts to focus on processing evidence for active cases.
These changes are already netting real results. Within the last year, the turnaround time for bodily fluid analysis has dropped from almost 2 years to 3.4 months.
Rape kits submitted to the lab without a rush request by the Wilmington Police Department that used to take 2 years to process are now being returned to local detectives within 7 or 8 months in some cases.
"The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And the state crime laboratory has been the squeaky wheel now for more than its share amount of time," Byrd explained of the issues there that are finally getting resolved thanks to recent improvements at the lab.
In cases with a rush request, turn around time is much faster. It only took the state lab about 30 days to process evidence in a Carolina Beach kidnapping and rape from March of this year.
That DNA evidence helped secure a guilty plea from 49-year-old John Barnette, who will now spend a minimum of 22 years in prison.
Reducing turn around time at the state lab has helped shift attention to other bottlenecks in the criminal justice system. For example, we've learned that on average, it takes the Wilmington Police Department 4 to 5 months to submit a rape kit to the state lab for testing after a crime has occurred.
The exact time it takes for investigators to admit evidence for testing after a rape varies widely, ranging from just over a week in one recent case, to 19 months in another rape under investigation by Wilmington Police.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David talked to us about the reason for some of the local delays. In some cases, investigators have trouble tracking down a suspect to collect a DNA sample, which the state lab requires for comparison in cases where the victim knows the attacker. In other cases, they know where the attacker is, but he won't cooperate with investigators requesting the DNA sample.
"You have to get a search warrant, and that's why there's going to be fights in court over whether there's probable cause for that," David explained.
Not all of our local agencies are handling submission of rape kits in the same way. For example, Wrightsville Beach Police said they were still hanging onto a rape kit from 2013, because they were waiting for prosecutors to decide whether or not to pursue the case.
By contrast, Wilmington Police said they submit rape kits to the state lab in all cases where they think there is a viable criminal case, even if they haven't yet received formal approval from prosecutors.
"Investigators don't need our permission to be able to submit anything to be very clear. They don't need my permission to make an arrest or to submit evidence," David told WECT after we told him about the differences in how local agencies he advises were handling rape investigations. "That's why I appreciate you bringing this to my attention, because it has never been the intent of the SART [sexual assault response team] team or my office, for there to be any delay waiting on advice that's clear that if it could lead to the discovery of the truth, let's find that out as soon as we can."
When we reached back out to Wrightsville Beach Police for clarification on the rape kit they were holding from 2013, they explained it was from a case where the victim knew her attacker.
Wrightsville Beach Police investigators did not think the case met the criteria that would warrant criminal prosecution. For that reason, investigators say they did not send it to the state lab, but they also did not immediately close the case in the event prosecutors decided to pursue it.