Old issues emerge in Ohio governor race

The two candidates are sparring over the administration of the state’s crime labs.

This isn’t 2010, but you might think so if you’re following this year’s contest for Ohio governor.

Eight years ago — when the same two candidates were running in the attorney general’s race — Republican Mike DeWine hammered incumbent Democrat Richard Cordray over how long it took to process DNA evidence in the state-run crime labs.

DeWine’s attacks were played over and over again in television ads in the weeks before the election, which ended with DeWine pulling off a narrow victory over Cordray.

Now, as DeWine and Cordray square off again — this time in the governor’s race — it almost seems like 2010 again.

“Cordray’s failure left serial rapists free to strike again,” a DeWine ad narrator says.

In response to the ad, Cordray said: “After 42 years we all know that Mike DeWine can find a way to play politics with just about any issue, but I’m sad to see him doing it again now in this campaign on something as serious and sensitive as rape kits. The reality is, DeWine let the statewide backlog of rape kits fester in his office for seven years before finally getting them all tested.”

Related: Drug cases swamp crime labs Testing rape kits

The race may be the only one in the country where two governor candidates are sparring over the administration of crime labs.

In a 30-second TV ad, DeWine highlights his administration’s effort to test previously neglected rape kits — and puts the blame on Cordray for not testing those kits.

When DeWine became attorney general “he tested all 12,000 rape kits,” the ad says. “Now hundreds of rapists are behind bars.”

To be clear, the kits sat on evidence room shelves in police departments across Ohio — not in the state crime labs.

In 2009, Cleveland serial rapist and killer Anthony Sowell’s case put a spotlight on the issue. The Cleveland Plain Dealer found that 4,000 rape kits had never been tested. The police chief agreed to start sending the kits to the state labs for testing.

At the time, Cordray, who served as AG from 2009 to 2010, called for a statewide discussion among policymakers about testing rape kits. He says now that he also established a statewide protocol and upgraded crime lab equipment to help address the backlog.

When DeWine became AG in 2011, he made it a signature project, offering free tests to police agencies with untested kits that may be tied to crimes. Departments began voluntarily submitting old kits and then in March 2015 a new law went into effect mandating submission.

In February 2018, DeWine announced that all 13,931 submitted rape kits had been analyzed. Some 8,648 DNA profiles were added to a national database, 5,024 matches were made identifying suspects, and hundreds of charges had been filed. Serial offenders were tied to 1,127 crimes, according to DeWine.

Cordray and other Democrats, however, say the state crime labs under DeWine’s leadership have struggled to quickly turn around test results in drug cases.

In April, a judge in Adams County ordered a defendant in a drug case to write a note to DeWine, “thanking him for the backlog” that led to the defendant to be allowed to plead guilty to a lesser offense because evidence wasn’t ready as the trial came near, the Columbus Dispatch wrote.

In 2017, the wait time reached 136 days but additional staffing and outsourcing some work has chopped the turn out time this year.

Related: Ohio BCI agents angry about wearing expired vests, prepared for ‘misfortune’ Upgrading body armor

The state’s crime labs — located in Bowling Green, London, Richfield and Springfield — are run by the Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, the law enforcement arm of the AG’s office.

BCI is the focus of a different campaign attack by Cordray — on whether DeWine has outfitted BCI agents with the proper equipment.

In June, the union representing agents filed a grievance because more than 50 agents were wearing bulletproof vests that had expired.

Cordray seized on the issue, saying no officers should have to beg for safety equipment, and said emails released by DeWine’s office show DeWine was scheduled to be fitted for his own vest — something DeWine’s spokesman said never happened.

“When I was attorney general I would never have dreamed of getting myself a bulletproof vest, especially if our own agents were in danger,” Cordray said in a press call.

DeWine’s office said in August that the new vests were on order and they were awaiting a delivery date.

The office also announced a program with the Bureau of Workers’ Compensation to provide grants of up to $40,000 to police agencies to purchase protective vests for their officers.

“This new program will help our first responders get the latest body armor, helping to protect them while they do the important work of keeping their communities safe,” DeWine said in a written statement.

But Ohio FOP President Gary Wolske responded that DeWine was attempting to politicize officer safety.

“DeWine allowed more than 50 of his own agents to wear expired Kevlar vests – some of them for more than seven years,” Wolske said in a statement. “Now that this has become a political problem for his campaign, he’s trying to take action for something that has been a safety issue for years.”

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