United States: National Institute of Justice Report Identifies Issues Surrounding Unanalyzed Forensic Evidence in Cases of Sexual Assault
Tuesday, May 31, 2011 3:10 PM

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) released a special report discussing the issues surrounding unanalyzed sexual assault kits (SAKs) which are being discovered in jurisdictions throughout the United States.  There are many reasons for the backlog of untested SAKs, but one is the out-of-date procedures in many police precincts.  A  2007 NIJ survey of police departments in the United States revealed that 43% of the two thousand responding law enforcement departments did not have a computerized system for tracking evidence.  In addition, the survey showed that police failure to submit forensic evidence for testing may indicate a lack of understanding about its potential for generating new leads and that policies and procedures regarding forensic evidence are varied and inconsistent.


This report examines several issues arising as police departments around the United States discover unanalyzed evidence in sexual assault cases.  First, authorities must decide how to prioritize newly discovered SAKs considering their limited resources and staff.  They should also consider whether the crime was a stranger or acquaintance assault as past prejudices surrounding acquaintance rape may have influenced previous investigations.  In addition, departments dealing with unanalyzed SAKs need to establish policies and procedures for victim notification.  It may be difficult to find past victims, the victims may prefer not to be notified of a revived investigation, and victims may need counseling and other support.  There are also downstream effects in the criminal justice system when untested evidence is discovered.  Even after evidence is finally submitted for testing, law enforcement is left to determine how to best prioritize subsequent investigations and prosecutions keeping in mind limited resources and overworked prosecutors and public defenders.  Finally, many jurisdictions face issues with the statute of limitations on sexual assaults.  If the statute of limitations has run, authorities must decide whether to use resources to test the evidence and/or whether the evidence may be useful in establishing past criminal conduct in future prosecutions. 


The report concludes that law enforcement discovering unanalyzed SAKs have to balance the interests of victims with limited staff and resources.  They must also decide how to address and assist the victims of unsolved sexual assaults and how to prevent such a backlog in evidence from occurring again.


Compiled from: The Road Ahead: Unanalyzed Evidence in Sexual Assault Cases, (May 2011).