- Associated Press - Sunday, October 4, 2015

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - A New Hampshire lawmaker is proposing an audit of all untested sexual assault kits statewide, saying his research suggests that no one seems to know how many there are and that the gap that could allow serial rapists to keep committing crimes.

Democratic state Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, a member of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, proposes putting the commissioner of the Department of Public Safety in charge of overseeing the statewide inventory and contacting local departments to ensure they account for all kits.

“We don’t know how many rape kits in the state of New Hampshire have gone untested,” Cushing said. “There may be rapists at large.”

New Hampshire forensic lab director Tim Pifer said last week he had seven rape kits that had yet to be tested, calling it a “very low backlog.” Pifer doesn’t know whether local police departments send every kit to the lab.

National groups that advocate on behalf of rape victims - including the Joyful Heart Foundation - want all untested rape kits tested and the results fed into national DNA databases. Lawmakers and law enforcement officials are listening, and major cities across the country, using federal and other grants, have scrambled over the past two years to tally and test stored rape kits.

The Associated Press reported in May that Houston cleared up a backlog of nearly 6,700 kits and got 850 hits on suspects in a national DNA database. Detroit is nearly done testing 11,000 rape kits that were found in a police property storage facility. Those tests have uncovered links to 487 serial rapists who have committed crimes in 39 states and the District of Columbia, according to Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy at Joyful Heart.

Police have said a pattern emerged during the testing of those old kits: Many rapists are repeat offenders who might have been stopped with a timely testing of the sexual assault kits.

Knecht said her organization has no data on untested kits in New Hampshire but supports Cushing’s proposal for an inventory.

“We really feel like starting with an audit is the first step toward accountability and determining whether you have a problem in your state,” Knecht said. She said there a number of other states are also beginning to look at numbers and procedures.

Tilton Police Chief Robert Cormier, head of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, says the association doesn’t collect data on rape kits. His department’s policy is to take rape kits from the hospital to the state lab immediately “in 99.9 percent of cases.” He said the exceptions are two cases in the past seven years in which the women who filed sex assault reports later told police they had lied.

Federal grants have helped municipalities and state forensic laboratories whittle down the backlog of untested rape kits. An additional $80 million in grants was awarded in September.

Pifer, the forensic lab director, said that besides the seven untested kits, the lab has seven others that are deemed anonymous because the women haven’t pressed charges. The lab will keep those kits for at least 60 days and test them if any of the women changes her mind, he said.

Pifer said the Department of Public Safety gets a $250,000 grant annually from the National Institute of Justice to help offset the cost of prompt testing of rape kits.

“Without that money, we probably would have a significant backlog in sex assault analysis and DNA analysis,” Pifer said.

Knecht said prompt testing sends a message to rape victims that they’ve been taken seriously and tells perpetrators they will be tracked down.

“By letting kits sit on shelves, we are allowing very dangerous criminals to continue walking our streets and we’re sending a message to survivors that they don’t matter,” Knecht said.

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