UPDATE: Amended rape kits bill headed to governor's desk

RALEIGH, NC (WECT) - A bill amended by the state Senate to address the backlog of untested rape kits sitting in evidence rooms across North Carolina is headed to Gov. Roy Cooper's desk for his signature.

The amended HB 945, originally sponsored by Rep. Ted Davis (R-New Hanover County), received unanimous support from senators and returned to the state House for concurrence on Thursday. Lawmakers in that chamber agreed to the changes before sending it to Cooper, who signature will make it law.

The amendment approved unanimously by senators included language suggesting sanctions for any kits that are contaminated or destroyed, along with the original parameters of establishing a plan to prioritize testing the kits and a process for preserving the kits.

According to the most recent data available, there are more untested rape kits sitting on evidence shelves in North Carolina than any other state in the country. The issue prompted some state lawmakers to draft legislation to improve the criminal justice system for victims of sexual assault.

After a statewide audit, the NC Attorney General's office announced in February there are 15,160 rape kits in law enforcement offices across North Carolina that have never been tested. Some of the kits have been collecting dust for decades.

According to the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national non-profit organization that tracks rape kit backlog numbers, the only other states with backlogs close to that size are Florida, which has 13,435 untested kits, and California with 13,615.

There are a dozen other states, including South Carolina, where there is no data available on the number of untested rape kits.

Until somewhat recently, local rape crisis personnel mistakenly believed that all rape kits were tested. In a 2015 WECT investigation, we found out that was not the case, which surprised and outraged Wilmington's Rape Crisis Center Director Jessica Green.

"I was under the impression and I think our clients are under the impression that when they go through that process that [the kit] is going to be sent off," Green said at the time. "I think that [victims] are going to be really shocked and really heartbroken to know that they went through all that trouble and hassle for it to not come to anything."

Green explained it often takes seven or eight hours for medical teams to perform the 17-part exam for a rape kit, and the invasive procedure can be a trauma of its own after a victim has been raped.

Advocates for expanded rape kit testing say the collection of DNA evidence after a sexual assault can help prosecutors identify an unknown suspect if the DNA matches in a national database. Forensic evidence from a rape kit can also clear someone who has been wrongly accused.

In the past, with limited funding for testing rape kits, law enforcement officials had to pick and choose which kits to test.

In some cases where the suspect agreed to plead guilty in court, or the victim changed their mind and decided not to press charges, prosecutors saw little reason to spend scarce resources testing those kits.

But thousands of untested rape kits in North Carolina did not fall into either of those categories, and DNA results could have been helpful to the rape investigation had the kits been tested.

The bill also would ensure victims could track the status of their sexual assault kit so they would know when testing had been completed.

Viable untested rape kits from the 15,160 identified in the Attorney General's 2017 audit would be tested. Law enforcement agencies with custody of the older kits would be tasked with taking reasonable measures to notify the victims of the testing status of those kits as well.

While Attorney General Josh Stein has recently criticized the legislature for not setting aside $2 million he requested to begin testing the backlogged rape kits in the current budget, lawmakers sponsoring the rape kit testing legislation say that will happen once the system is established.

"Rather than giving the money and then do the plans, our thought was no, we're going to wait, see what the plans are, see what's all involved with the plans, see what cost is going to be involved with the plans, such as staff or any other costs, and then we'll talk about appropriating the money," Davis told WECT.

At $700 per kit, Stein estimates the total cost to test all the untested kits would be $10 million.

Copyright 2018 WECT. All rights reserved.