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Cities begin to slice backlog of rape kit tests

MEMPHIS — Meaghan Ybos was 16 and had just arrived home from school when a man in a ski mask held a knife to her throat and raped her.

The man said he would kill her if she called the police, but she did so anyway. That led to barrages of skeptical questions, Ybos said, and the excruciating collection of evidence from her body, gathered into what is commonly known as a rape kit.

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“I felt so vulnerable being laid out on a table, with all my clothes off and in a bag and all the swabs and brushes and combs,” she recalled. But, she figured, the police would use the swabs and hair samples to help catch the rapist.

They did not. Like hundreds of thousands of other rape kits across the country containing evidence gathered from victims, that of Ybos lay untested for years on a storeroom shelf.

The reasons for the backlog, experts say, include constraints on finances and testing facilities, along with a lack of recognition among some investigators that DNA testing might reveal a pattern of serial rapes. And too often, women’s advocates say, the kits went untested because of an uncaring and haphazard response to sexual assault charges.

Today, after years of pressure, a shift is beginning. Several cities, including Memphis most recently, have won praise for efforts not only to submit all new rape kits for testing but also to test those in storage.

In 2012, nine years after her rape, Ybos learned that her kit had gone untested. She had called the police to say an attacker described in news accounts resembled the man in her nightmares. At that point, the evidence gathered in 2003 was sent for analysis. Ybos, it showed, had been an early victim of a man who went on to assault at least six more women over the years and who is now serving a 178-year sentence.

“I felt like I finally got my life back,” Ybos said of the moment she knew her attacker was behind bars.

It will be a while before many others can say the same, even in Memphis. More than 12,000 kits here have been tested incompletely or not at all. Mayor AC Wharton Jr. has vowed to proceed with a $6.5 million plan to test the entire lot, appealing for state and private donations and federal funding to help meet the cost.

Over the last decade, reports of large rape-kit backlogs have surfaced, often after investigations by news reporters or advocacy groups. But because many cities have resisted looking too hard or have even destroyed untested kits over time, the extent of the problem is unknown, said Sarah Tofte, director of policy at the Joyful Heart Foundation, a New York group that aids victims of sexual assault and is now advising Detroit and Memphis.

“What we know about the extent of backlogs around the country is still less than what we don’t know,” said Tofte, saying it appears likely that hundreds of thousands of kits still lie on shelves untested.

But the newly concerted programs are producing results.

In Detroit in 2009, officials discovered more than 11,000 unprocessed rape kits, dating back to the 1980s, in a police warehouse. Analysis of the first 1,600 kits identified 455 suspects in 23 states, including 87 involved in multiple assaults, the county prosecutor’s office reported in March.

In Massachusetts, a Senate oversight committee last fall said that while Boston police and State Police had made progress in greatly reducing their backlogs, they would benefit from a comprehensive electronic tracking system.

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