NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - It's a topic making national headlines. Rape kits, with DNA evidence from the crime, sitting untested in crime labs for years. In other cases, kits simply abandoned in police evidence rooms with no plans to test them at all.
Prosecutors say they are currently getting back DNA results from rapes that happened 2 years ago.
In that time frame, hundreds of victims from Southeastern North Carolina alone have had rape kits taken at area hospitals following a rape. Local law enforcement agencies don't submit all of those kits to the state lab. In the event of a date or acquaintance rape, where the victim knows their attacker, DNA analysis is not always necessary.
But dozens of other rape kits are still waiting for DNA analysis at the state lab. There are 34 DNA cases awaiting processing from New Hanover County, 15 cases from Brunswick, 13 from Columbus County, 8 from Pender County and 13 cases from Bladen County. State officials say those numbers include all criminal cases needing DNA analysis, not just rapes.
"Having to wait for approximately two years without a rush request is pretty devastating in cases like this," said New Hanover County sex crimes prosecutor Connie Jordan.
In her 18 years as a prosecutor, Jordan has heard true stories more horrific than you could probably imagine. Ironically, waiting so long for DNA test results after the crime itself becomes one of the hardest things of all for victims.
The wait time doesn't just add to the pain and suffering. In many cases, it can cost victims a conviction.
"By the time it's all wrapped up, we're talking two, maybe three years. And by the time they get there they are done fighting," Coastal Horizons Rape Crisis Center Supervisor Jessica Green explained of victims losing their will to go to trial.
A couple of recent examples include DNA results from two rapes in the summer of 2013 recently returned to the New Hanover County DA's office. In one case, the victim waited two years to find out that the DA's office doesn't have enough evidence to proceed.
In the other case, the evidence is there, but it took so long to get it the victim no longer wants to go to trial. Without a witness, the state has no choice but to dismiss the case. Jordan said this is commonplace.
While the source of the backlog makes little difference to victims, officials with the state lab wanted to make it clear that in some cases, a significant amount of time passes from the time a rape kit is taken to the time it's submitted to the state lab.
"We can't process evidence we don't have," said Noelle Talley, a spokesperson for the NC Department of Justice.
Referring to the two cases specifically referenced in this story, Talley says one of the rapes occurred in June of 2013, but wasn't submitted to the state lab by the Wilmington Police Department until January of 2014. The other case involved a rape in August of 2013, but wasn't submitted to the state lab by the Wrightsville Beach Police Department until February of 2014.
The state lab will rush DNA testing on a limited basis for special circumstances, like a violent rapist who is unknown and still at large, but there are so many rush requests, there's even a line to get those processed.
So what's the problem? In North Carolina, there are simply not enough analysts to process the roughly 50,000 pieces of evidence that are submitted by law enforcement agencies all across the state each year.
A 2009 US Supreme Court decision added to the burden, ruling that lab scientists must testify in person in all criminal trials. This takes the scientists away from evidence processing, and instead has them spending thousands of hours driving to courthouses all over the state, then waiting for their turn to take the stand.
And of course - there's money.
"Salaries are not as competitive as they could be, and there is a large amount of turnover," Jordan explained.
According to a report prepared by the state lab director in the fall and submitted to state lawmakers, 70 of the state's highly trained scientists left their job at the crime lab in the last five years, with many saying they were leaving for significant pay increases at other labs.
In addition to competition from private labs offering higher salaries, the report says state crime labs in our neighboring states pay significantly more than ours do.
On top of lost productivity, the report says turnover from scientists leaving for better jobs cost the state more than $4 million on things like hiring and training scientists who no longer work here.
Despite limitations, the Crime Lab is still working to become more efficient. Since March, the Attorney General's office tells us the Forensic Biology Section of the Crime Lab has reduced turnaround time for DNA analysis by nearly 5 months.
Legislators have funded dozens of new scientist positions at the state lab, and they are now building a new crime lab in Western North Carolina where DNA can be processed.
The state has also improved salaries, but they are still not in line with those at competing labs.
Money to increase scientists' salaries is being considered by lawmakers finalizing the state budget now, but it's yet to be seen if it will make the final cut.
Regarding stories we've heard from other parts of the country where rape kits were abandoned without ever being tested - that has happened before in North Carolina, but not recently.
The AG's office says they conducted a sweep in 2004 and found 6,200 untested rape kits in law enforcement offices across the state. Many of those were eliminated from screening because the lab said the evidence was unsuitable for DNA analysis, but 514 were deemed viable and processed.