REPORTER: No ones sure how many untested sexual assault evidence kits there are languishing in evidence lockers around the United States. But we do have a number to start with here in New Mexico"about 55-hundred. State and local officials have known about it for a year, and even though the issue has gotten lots of attention, the number of untested kits hasnt shrunk much at all.
GAIL STARR: [0:10] It absolutely breaks my heart that many of the ones Ive done are in storage.
Gail Starr is the clinical coordinator for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, or SANE, where nurses collect DNA evidence. Starr showed me around their space in Downtown Albuquerque.
GAIL STARR: [0:06] We have several locked doors so its a very protected unit. Its considered an offender-free facility.
Hospitals in the area refer everyone to SANE after a sexual assault. Starr opens the door to a warm, dim, comfortable looking room.
GAIL STARR: [0:11] We have two interview rooms, and this is one of them. We have a couch. We have food and water. And we have blankets, especially during the winter. We give them to a patient, and theyre able to take it home.
Survivors dont have to go to the police just because they reached out to SANE. Evidence kits can be stored for a year while they make their decision. They dont degrade.
We enter an exam room, which looks just like most doctors offices youve seen, if a little friendlier. This one, though, is tailored to assault survivors.
GAIL STARR: [0:09] Its a hard exam to have done, but we make it as comfortable as we absolutely can. We have showers. We have clothes. So we can change them into something a little more comfortable.
Starr says they can provide some peace-of-mind about a persons physical health.
GAIL STARR: [0:16] It can be healing to have somebody make sure theyre OK down there, make sure their genitals are OK. The patient absolutely has control over their exam. If they just want the medication, they can get the medication and go. We talk to them about every part, and we try to re-empower them over what they can do.
The nurses do more than collect evidence and examine physical injuries. They can also help people avoid pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections after an assault. Since they know now that DNA evidence isnt always being tested, SANE is especially focused these days on the wellness aspect of its mission.
GAIL STARR: [0:04] Im hopeful. Im optimistic that some good changes will come.
New Mexicos untested sexual assault evidence kits are scattered around the state, but most are from Albuquerque, where the mayor announced he would spend two hundred grand to clear about 10 percent of them. But the state auditors new numbers show that so far, none of those old kits in Bernalillo County have been tested yet.
COLE CARVOUR: [0:13] Even where systems are falling through, I know so many individuals in the sex-crimes unit, in the DAs Office, in the Rape Crisis Center that are absolutely outraged with the fact that this backlog exists.
Cole Carvour is the volunteer advocate coordinator at the Rape Crisis Center of Central New Mexico.
COLE CARVOUR: [0:09] They are individually working so hard so that survivors dont have these sort of experiences of feeling like they fell off the map and that no one cared.
MARISA DEMARCO: [0:35] What do you think its like right now for survivors who are wondering if their kits in that backlog or not?
COLOE CARVOUR: They probably have a lot of questions. And thats fair. I cant imagine the frustration of feeling like perhaps everyone that I dealt with had failed me because this extremely violent thing happened to me, and someone is off free with no consequences for their actions. Why was my case less important? Or why did people doubt me? Or why has there been inaction around my case?
Both Carvour and Starr say that even if the criminal justice path isnt right for a survivor"and its not for lots of people"theres other help available for people who reach out after being assaulted for things like medical, therapeutic, or financial assistance.
And the audit says examining all of the DNA evidence"even when kits are old"honors victims who are fighting for justice.
But, say all of these old kits get tested. Whats to stop them from stacking up again? Figuring out where law enforcement is dropping the ball is a big part of answering that question.
For KUNM, Im Marisa Demarco.
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© Copyright 2007 Pacifica Foundation