Bill would set up a system to track assault evidence

John Roman | iStockphoto
Crime Scene

RALEIGH — A bill working its way through the General Assembly would create a statewide tracking system for evidence taken following an alleged sexual assault. The bill sets up a working group to recommend a uniform protocol for handling evidence kits and requires that the 15,000 evidence kits stored at the county and local level be processed where possible.

“There is a misconception that there are untested rape kits at the State Crime Lab, which there are not, they are current,” says Rep. Jamie Boles (R-Moore). “The rape kits in question are still sitting in sheriff’s departments and municipality police departments. They are not in the custody of the state.”

The bill stems from a recommendation from the legislative Committee on Justice and Public Safety that wanted a comprehensive overhaul of the handling of rape kits, after thousands of backlogged kits were reported. The backlog occurred while current Gov. Roy Cooper was attorney general, which he attributed to not paying analysts enough and the increased time they spend in court defending their findings.

The N.C. General Assembly appropriated money over the last 15 years to clear up the backlog and increase salaries. Last year, the legislature passed a law requiring municipalities to report the number of locally stored kits. They had a 92 percent response rate, and Boles says its time for the next step.

“First of all, we don’t even know how they’re stored,” said Boles. “They could be in a building that is 18 degrees in the wintertime and a 160 degrees in the summertime. Are they testable? We don’t know.”

According to bill sponsors, a thorough audit of untested kits held at the local level will likely lead to appropriations to have viable kits tested.

“I commend the Senate Judiciary Committee members for approving legislation to track sexual assault kits,” said N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein. “This bill, which my office developed, is a step in the right direction, but we have a long way to go. We need funding from the legislature to begin outsourcing the more than 15,000 kits waiting to be tested today and to develop the tracking system. We must bring justice to sexual assault victims and put dangerous criminals behind bars.”

Steins comments come a week after he called lawmakers “irresponsible” for not including funding for processing the kits in the state budget.

A group of lawmakers shot back, accusing Stein of playing politics.

“Josh Stein should know better and should be ashamed of this partisan attempt to deflect blame and defend the failures of his predecessor Roy Cooper,” read a group statement from Sens. Shirley Randleman (R-Wilkes), Kathy Harrington (R-Gaston), Joyce Krawiec (R-Forsyth), Tamara Barringer (R-Wake), Cathy Dunn (R-Davidson), Deanna Ballard (R-Watauga) and Trudy Wade (R-Guilford).

“Under Democratic and Republican budgets dating back to the 2003-04 budget, state taxpayer money was set aside to test these rape kits. And it is unconscionable that during his 16 years as attorney general, Gov. Cooper not only failed to heed the pleas of rape victims … but then lied to the people of North Carolina and said he had fixed the problem.”

The bill passed the N.C. House on Tuesday and is now before the state Senate.