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Ohio’s rape kit testing effort starts to yield results

More than 3,000 kits have been submitted to help solve old crimes.

.A nearly $1-million effort to test thousands of old rape kits for attackers’ DNA is beginning to yield results in Ohio’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation crime lab.

Attorney General Mike DeWine put out the call in December 2011 to law enforcement agencies statewide to send in untested rape kits, promising to run them through the lab at no cost to the local government. BCI hired four additional forensic scientists to take on the expected onslaught of old kits.

So far, 3,122 kits have been submitted from 94 law enforcement agencies statewide, including 1,349 from Cleveland and 338 from Cincinnati.

Scientists have tested 1,080 kits and found DNA profiles on 556 but no genetic fingerprints on 524.

Of the 556 kits with DNA, 294 matched profiles in state or national databases. Of the 294, 118 matched the name given to police at the time of the attack, 122 hits were to potential suspects whose DNA profiles were already in the databases and 30 profiles showed attackers other than the name given at the time of the assault.

The testing also appears to link rapists to multiple attacks: three men linked to four assaults, four men linked to five cases and one connected to six attacks.

“The bottom line is that we’ve had innocent people cleared out of investigations and we’ve had guilty people who have been identified,” DeWine said. “Frankly I’m just delighted with how fruitful these have been. We’ve been able to go back and tell a police department they have a serial rapist. We’re able to match up police departments and tell them ‘You have the same serial rapist as another police department has.’ So they can compare notes. We’ve been able to go, in some cases, back to a police department and say the person who is your prime suspect in this case is not your guy.”

Two John Does were indicted in Cuyahoga County based on the DNA profiles. The statute of limitations on sexual assault is 20 years, though state lawmakers are considering legislation to lift the limit.

“Once BCI receives a hit, we return the information to the investigating agency. It is up to law enforcement to then use that information to investigate and find out if a crime occurred, and if there is enough evidence to indict,” said DeWine spokeswoman Jill Del Greco.

The testing effort has been criticized by Democrat David Pepper, who is expected to challenge DeWine for attorney general next year. Pepper argues that just a fraction of the kits have been tested so far.

“Basically, if all you’ve done is move them from one shelf to another, you haven’t really done anything,” Pepper said. He said DeWine promised to test 3,000 kits per year but has fallen far short of that.

Pepper is employing the same campaign strategy as DeWine did against incumbent Attorney General Richard Cordray in 2010: criticize how things are handled at the crime lab. “By his own standards, he is clearly falling short,” Pepper said.

Pepper said he would partner with local crime labs to process the backlogged samples more quickly.

DeWine called Pepper’s criticism “kind of laughable.”

“These kits sat there for 20 years until I became attorney general,” DeWine said.

DeWine’s office said it took several months to train the new BCI lab employees so testing didn’t get into full swing until October 2012. The number of kits processed each month varies but the lab hit a high of 184 in May.

“The DNA testing process is very time consuming, and therefore we set our goal to test 1,500 kits in the first year. We are well on our way to meeting that goal by October 2013,” said Del Greco. “We are committed to testing each and every kit until there are none left to be tested. Since we do not know how many kits have yet to be submitted, it is impossible to say when the testing may be complete.”

The goal for the second year is 3,000 kits, she said. The effort is expected to cost $990,000 over two years.

Katie Hanna, executive director of the Ohio Alliance to End Sexual Violence, said it is worthwhile to test kits, even from assaults that happened long ago. “For those kits to be sitting on shelves is an injustice to survivors who want answers,” she said.

Only a handful of kits were submitted to BCI from Dayton area police departments because most of them use the Miami Valley Regional Crime Lab. Assistant Lab Director Denise Rankin said the lab began testing all incoming samples in 2005 and there is no backlog of untested kits. Any evidence samples that generate DNA profiles are retained in freezers for later reference, she said.

DeWine called on police and sheriff’s departments to submit untested kits after it came to light in 2010 that Cleveland police had more than 6,000 pieces of evidence in sexual assault cases going as far back as the 1950s but less than half of it had been submitted for lab testing, according to The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

In May 2011, state officials acknowledged that a DNA sample from serial killer and rapist Anthony Sowell was never entered into state or national databases, prompting DeWine to call for uniform statewide guidelines for the testing of sexual assault evidence, The Plain Dealer reported.

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