The state will convene a work group to develop guidelines for what types of forensic evidence police must forward to state crime labs for testing.
Governor Terry McAuliffe announced the formation of the work group Thursday in response to a report issued earlier this month by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science that said law enforcement agencies across the state were in possession of 2,369 untested physical evidence recovery kits. The kits, commonly called rape kits, can also contain evidence from victims of domestic violence, elder or child abuse, dog-bite injuries and other crimes. A kit’s contents, collected at hospitals if victims seek medical attention, can be crucial in criminal proceedings.
“Legitimate questions are being raised in the legal and law enforcement communities about how the decisions to test [kit] evidence are made,” McAuliffe said in a statement. “When it comes to handling of critical evidence, we cannot afford to let these questions linger.
The work group will meet in September. It is comprised of forensic nurse examiners, victim advocates, state prosecutors, defense attorneys, local law enforcement and members of McAuliffe’s administration.
The Virginia General Assembly passed a bill in 2014 requiring police departments to inventory the number of kits in their possession that had not been sent to the Department of Forensic Science prior to July 1, 2014. The agency report listed how many kits each agency was responsible for, how long they’ve remained untested (some date to 1988), and general reasons the agencies held on to them.
Of the 385 law enforcement agencies in the state, only two did not participate in the process. Nearly two thirds reported having no untested kits. Locally, that included the Henrico Sheriff’s Office, Chesterfield Sheriff’s Office, as well as the J. Sargent Reynolds, Virginia Union and University of Richmond campus police departments.
More than 10 percent of Virginia’s physical evidence recovery kits traced back to the Richmond Police Department. RPD reported having 257 untested kits, the second highest number in the state, behind only the Fairfax County Police Department (347).
Aside from RPD, Chesterfield County Police reported having 153; Henrico County Police, 39; Hanover Sheriff’s Office, 28; Virginia Commonwealth University Police, two.
In the last few years, the discovery of thousands of untested kits in major cities has prompted a nationwide discussion. In general, kits have not been tested because of backlogs at laboratories responsible for processing them.
This is not the case in Virginia, the report says. In 2014, state labs processed kits in an average of 72 days. The department receives 700 kits from local police annually.
A section of the state's report lists reasons given by local law enforcement for not sending a kit to the lab. A quarter of the kits weren’t submitted because their contents were “not relevant” to the criminal proceedings, according to the responses. One of five was not submitted because state prosecutors did not file charges in the related incident. Twenty-two percent weren’t tested because survivors “elected not to participate further in criminal justice process.” Another 20 percent were not tested, agencies said, for "other" reasons. Of those, 210 weren’t submitted because police determined the victim’s report was “unfounded.”
Based on the explanations, some of the kits “clearly should have been submitted" for analysis,” the report concludes.