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As DNA takes spotlight in serial killer case, thousands of California rape kits sit untested




This Feb. 8, 2017, photo, sexual assault evidence collection kit are shown during committee meeting at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah crime lab officials are feeling optimistic as they work to speed up the time it takes to process sexual assault evidence kits, after lawmakers approved a measure last month that sends more than $1 million to go toward this effort.
This Feb. 8, 2017, photo, sexual assault evidence collection kit are shown during committee meeting at the Utah State Capitol, in Salt Lake City. Utah crime lab officials are feeling optimistic as they work to speed up the time it takes to process sexual assault evidence kits, after lawmakers approved a measure last month that sends more than $1 million to go toward this effort.
Rick Bowmer/AP

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After decades of waiting, victims of the Golden State Killer finally have justice in their sights. Authorities arrested Joseph James DeAngelo, the man believed to be responsible for terrorizing women up and down California for years.  

The serial killer held many monikers. The Visalia Ransacker for a string of home robberies, the Golden State Killer for the dozen people he murdered, and the East Area Rapist for the sexual assault of 51 women.

The Golden State Killer's victims and their families lived for years without justice, but it was DNA evidence that eventually led authorities to DeAngelo. 

DNA was the missing piece that solved the puzzle. But for thousands of women in California, the DNA evidence from their assault has never been tested.

To boot, California has access to a database of DNA samples– a pool of potential matches grown larger by a 2004 state law requiring DNA collection from convicted felons and others with criminal charges. 

Advocacy groups estimate more than 13,000 rape kits have gone untested in the state. 

"We know, as evidenced recently, that DNA solves crimes," said State Senator Connie Leyva. She's put forth Senate bill 1449 that would require newly collected rape kits to be analyzed within an immediate time frame. "We know that testing these rape kits will bring perpetrators to justice. We could catch rapists before they can rape someone else."

Law enforcement agencies have long said their respective backlogs were due to a lack of resources. In turn, Sen. Leyva's bill would liberate additional funding for agencies that apply. Federal funding is also available for testing and investigation. 

If signed into law, SB 1449 would prevent newly collected kits from gathering dust without a drastic change to current law. Currently, the law says that rape kits "should" be tested. The big difference in Leyva's bill is updating the language to say "shall" in place of "should." "Law enforcement has lots of priorities," Leyva said. "Now we're saying, these go to the top of the list and have to be tested."

Leyva tweet

DNA solves crimes. DNA prevents crimes. 

Leyva pointed to a recently released documentary, I Am Evidence, as an example of how DNA can prevent future crimes. The film features rape victims whose kits have never been processed, including a specific case where DNA evidence from a first victim could have prevented the assault of a second, had the DNA been utilized.

Justice for crimes past.

Even if California mandates that new kits be tested, there's still the thousands of shelved kits still in storage.  Assembly bill 3118, by Assembly member David Chiu, would require any agency that stores rape kits to conduct an official audit of exactly how many kits are in their possession and report the data to the Department of Justice. "If Assembly member Chiu's bill is passed, and once we know what the backlog is, then I think we can put together a plan to tackle it," Leyva said. 

The processing of a rape kit is no walk in the park. After the trauma of an assault, women and men then undergo an invasive examination. "And it doesn't get tested," said Leyva. "It just adds insult to injury."  

#MeToo and the will to make change.

 California's rape kit backlog is a longstanding issue that legislators have attempted to address through various bills with little success. "We're in a time when we're saying time's up, enough is enough, we're not going to take this anymore," said Leyva. "We're really seeing women stepping forward and saying, I want to make sure that no other woman suffered like I have suffered."