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Politics & Government

County To Process 560 Untested Rape Kits With Federal Grant

Kevin Hagen
AP Photo
Vice President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in New York on Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015. During the event, Biden and other officials announced almost $80 million in grants to help eliminate a vast nationwide backlog of rape kits.

The Allegheny County Medical Examiner’s office received a $254,437 grant to process previously untested sexual assault kits.

That money will go towards testing 160 kits the medical examiner’s office has backlogged and about 400 additional kits at police stations, hospitals and other facilities in the county.

"There's nothing more consequential than giving a woman back her life," said Vice President Joe Biden, after touring the New York City medical examiner's testing lab with Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and "Law & Order: SVU" actress Mariska Hargitay.

The money is part of $79 million in federal and New York City funds dispersed to clear up an estimated 70,000 unexamined rape kits sitting in laboratories and evidence collection rooms across the country. The grants, secured with $41 million in federal funds and $38 million from the Manhattan district attorney's office, will go to 43 jurisdictions in 27 states to support not just testing efforts but also funding auditing and training for localities on police and forensic best practices.

Vance said he hopes tested cases will lead to convictions and, in turn, restore faith in the justice system for sexual assault victims.

That's why making testing kits a priority sends a clear message to women who have been assaulted that "what happens to you matters," said Hargitay, who is president of the victims advocacy group Joyful Heart Foundation.

Rape kits are actually a series of DNA samplings and other evidence secured via intimate and sometimes invasive medical procedures conducted immediately after an attack. Experts say testing them promptly and comparing them to federal DNA databases for hits is crucial because as many as half of all sex offenders are serial rapists who sometimes travel, committing crimes as they move.

Officials also urged state governors and legislatures to eliminate statutes of limitations so that kits that match against the FBI database for crimes committed sometimes decades ago won't go unpunished.

Part of the reason for the backlogs is the cost of testing the kits, which can run around $800 to $1,000 each. Some cities such as Detroit have turned to private donations to raise money to clear the backlogs.

But Vance's office has established agreements with two private forensic labs to secure competitive rates, bringing the cost down for those tested with grant funds to less than $675 per kit, significantly cheaper than the nationwide average.

Medical Examiner Karl Williams called the money a “godsend” during a event on Friday. The kits will be collected locally and sent to outside laboratories, relieving local authorities already strapped by limited resources.

“We won’t do anything," he said. "We’ll get the swabs, we’ll take the swabs, we’ll send them out, the outside laboratory and they’ll do everything. They’ll do the processing.”

Williams credited the 2013 Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act, which mandates that law enforcement agencies submit sexual assault kits to labs and created a national registry of forensic evidence from sexual assault cases.

Awards for the grants range from about $97,000 to nearly $2 million. The Philadelphia police department received $419,788 to test 600 kits, and West Virginia's police forensic laboratory was awarded $1,763,281 to test 2,400 kits.

"We are prepared to have their back," said Biden of sexual assaults still waiting for evidence to be tested. "We are prepared to stand with them."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.