As Oklahoma works to address the problem of thousands of old untested rape kits, new laws and a lack of manpower have created a backlog of newer untested kits for much of the state.
In the last two years the time it takes for the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation to process kits has increased from an average of 40 days to more than 300, said division director of criminalistics Andrea Fielding.
The OSBI is responsible for handling rape kits for most of the state while the Oklahoma City and Tulsa police departments do their own testing.
Now OSBI has a new backlog of almost 1,300 untested rape kits, on top of about 3,300 old kits that still have to be processed.
“If a case comes in today you’re looking at almost a year before we’ll be able to touch it,” Fielding said earlier this month. “And that is very disappointing and very disheartening to us because we know how critical it is to the criminal justice system that those kits get processed and investigators get information that they can use in their cases.”
In 2018, a statewide audit discovered more than 7,200 untested rape kits in Oklahoma, and agencies are now trying to process them. Some of the kits date back to the 1980s.
To prevent more kits from going untested, Oklahoma passed a law in 2019 that requires law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits for testing within 20 days of receipt. Until then, there were no state laws dictating how long agencies had to retain all rape kits or when they had to test them.
The law has tripled OSBI’s caseload.
‘We did not have any idea’
In April 2017, then-Gov. Mary Fallin signed an executive order creating a 17-member task force to determine the number of untested rape kits in law enforcement agencies across Oklahoma.
Thousands of rape kits went untested for a variety of reasons, according to a 2018 report of the task force’s findings.
Sometimes victims declined to work with investigators or the identities of suspects were already known. At times, district attorneys refused to file charges. Occasionally, investigators closed cases because victims changed their stories.
“I can say for a fact we did not have any idea we had over 7,000 kits sitting out there,” said Fielding, who is a member of the task force. “If you would have asked any of us on that committee, none of us would have come up with a number that big.”
In 2019, the state Attorney General’s Office received a three-year $2.4 million federal Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant to reform how the state handles rape kits and test old ones. The office has hired staff to lead the effort, including an investigator and victim advocate.
The city of Tulsa received a federal grant for $1.5 million to process its 3,000 untested kits.
One of the initiative’s main goals is to test old rape kits and solve cold cases or identify serial rapists.
Only one arrest has been reported as a result of the initative so far — a man was recently charged in a 2003 cold case rape in Tulsa.
OSBI has been tasked with processing about 3,300 of the kits identified in the audit. The Oklahoma Attorney General Office’s initial federal grant can pay for about 1,300 of those. The agency is prioritizing which kits it should test first by looking at factors such as whether the statute of limitations for the case has passed and whether the suspect was a stranger to the victim.
To help process the kits, OSBI has outsourced some of the testing to a private lab, and last year the agency hired five DNA analysts, Fielding said. Analysts typically take more than two years to fully train, but Fielding said she hopes they’ll be ready by the end of this year. OSBI is in the process of hiring another five analysts, she said.
So far, OSBI has processed 30 old kits, Fielding said. Of those cases, one contained a DNA sample that matched another profile in the federal database.
After a kit is tested, and if there’s an eligible DNA profile from a suspect, law enforcement enters it into the FBI Combined DNA Index System to see if the DNA connects the suspect to another rape kit or sexual assault case. There’s also a chance the evidence identifies a known offender.
In Tulsa, the police department identified about 3,000 untested kits in storage going back as far as 1992, said Lt. Darin Ehrenrich, who oversees the initiative for the department. So far the agency has processed 504 of those, but it intends to eventually test them all. A ransomware attack on city systems in May has slowed the process, he said.
Of the kits tested in Tulsa, 31 of the DNA samples matched a profile in the federal database, Ehrenrich said. Police have contacted 29 victims, but only about half of them were willing to work with law enforcement.
Some didn’t want to relive the trauma, Ehrenrich said.
One victim among the 31 had died by the time investigators reached out, and they are working to contact an additional victim.
In March, the Tulsa Police Department made an arrest in a cold case rape from early 2003. The man allegedly raped a Tulsa woman shortly after he was discharged from a Virginia prison after serving 20 years for a rape conviction, according to court documents filed in the case.
The woman’s rape kit was tested last fall. The case is ongoing.
“We’re in the phase now where instead of just processing these (untested kits) and kind of sending them off, we’re really getting into the investigative aspect of it and putting together just really solid cases,” Ehrenrich said.
Danielle Tudor is a rape survior and member of the task force working to reform how Oklahoma handles reports of sexual assault. The state has made significant progress in addressing untested kits since she started advocating for change in 2016, she said.
Eventually, she would like the state to perform an annual audit on rape kits and secure a more stable source of funding to test them. And though she’s glad to see arrests made as a result of testing old kits, that’s not the only way she measures the initiative’s success.
New state laws include reforms such as requiring all kits be submitted for testing and have given victims the ability to track their rape kits through the testing process.
“To me, that’s success,” Tudor said. “When the survivor can have faith in the criminal justice system, that everything will be done on their behalf to, you know, do the best that they (law enforcement) can.”