Two years ago, Sarah Rose, L’15, started a research project for a summer internship. Splitting her time between the ACLU of Virginia and the Virginia Chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW), Rose began investigating potential backlogs of untested rape evidence kits in Virginia. Today, as Rose prepares to start a Bridge to Practice Fellowship, her initial work is paying off as Virginia completes an inventory of untested kits and makes plans to prevent backlogs in the future.
Virginia NOW had been considering taking on a research project on untested rape kits for some time. So when the Richmond Law Career Development Office reached out to see if they needed an intern in 2013, the answer was yes. Then a rising 2L, Rose got the job and was tasked with calling different crime labs and police departments to gather as much information as possible about the status of their Physical Evidence Recovery Kits, or PERKs. The backlog of untested rape kits was receiving a large amount of attention across the country – but not much attention in Virginia, even though the focus on sexual assault crimes was high. Virginia NOW “just wanted to get an idea: What is this all about? Is this happening in Virginia? If it is, what can we do about it?” explained Rose.
The type of data that Rose was able to gather depended on who she talked to in each office. In one jurisdiction she would be directed to the person in charge of the evidence room, while others might direct her to the Commonwealth’s Attorney, or refuse to provide any information. Another complicating factor in the research was the lack of a standard definition of the word “backlog.” Different agencies had different timelines for considering a kit to be backlogged, and this lack of a universal measurement added an extra layer of confusion to the research.
Rose compiled her findings into a 17-page report, detailing pertinent federal legislation and examples of how other localities handled their rape kit backlog, in addition to the statistics gathered for the cities and counties of Virginia. She offered recommendations to prevent backlogs in the future, and concluded, “As Virginia passes more laws requiring more DNA evidence collection, … legislators must keep in mind the impact this will have on the crime lab’s ability to process cases. They must counteract that impact in the best way possible for the crime lab, law enforcement agencies, budgetary constraints, and the citizens of Virginia by creating laws that reduce the backlog and help law enforcement officers get the evidence they need processed as quickly as possible.”
“I just provided them the raw information they needed to craft how they wanted to go forward,” said Rose. But Marj Signer, who, along with along with Virginia NOW president Diana Egozcue was one of her internship supervisors, put it a bit differently: “Sarah’s memo had a catalyst effect,” said Signer. “It got things moving.”
After reviewing the memo, Signer decided to present the report to state Senator Adam Ebbin of northern Virginia, who in turn conducted his own research and introduced a budget amendment to fund three positions in the Department of Forensic Science to help to analyze the kits. The amendment was included in the final budget that was signed by the governor.
But while Ebbin’s amendment addressed the financial aspect of testing the PERKs, it did not address the question of how many rape kits were shelved in police stations and needed to be tested. Meanwhile, state Senator Richard Black of Loudoun County was working on a bill mandating that an inventory be conducted of untested, backlogged PERKs. In March 2014, the Virginia General Assembly unanimously passed a bill requiring all law enforcement agencies to submit such an inventory, and the governor signed the bill.
In July 2015, the Department of Forensic Science issued a report of that inventory, including statistics submitted from over 99 percent of active state and local law enforcement agencies in Virginia. Of the 383 respondents, 247 reported that they had no backlogged kits, while the remaining 136 agencies reported a total of 2,369 untested kits. The report outlines potential funding sources for kit testing, as well as suggestions for improving the timely submission of PERKs for testing.
As far as Rose’s role in the process, from idea to legislation, “The big thing that she did was to get the ball rolling,” said Signer. And for an all-volunteer organization like Virginia NOW, that’s a valuable asset. “Volunteer assistance from somebody who has the skills makes a huge difference,” said Signer. “We were fortunate to have legal experts from the ACLU of Virginia to oversee Sarah’s research. But Sarah’s memo was extremely important in getting a women’s rights perspective into this legislation.”