Houston closes book on rape kit backlog

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Celebration at City Hall tempered by the crimes that could have been prevented if kits were tested earlier (KTRK)

Houston's leaders celebrated a milestone Monday, as Mayor Annise Parker, District Attorney Devon Anderson along with police brass and crime lab officials heralded the official end of a backlog of rape kits, some dating back to the 1980s.

"I'm very excited to be here today to talk about the progress we've made in an area that was of grave concern to many of us for a very long time," Parker said. "We took some bold steps and those steps have begun to pay off."

ABC-13 investigated issues surrounding the rape kit backlog earlier this month and found some of the accused rapists who were uncovered as the backlog was erased, had committed other crimes -- including sexual assault -- while their DNA sat untested in the police evidence room.

See the ABC-13 investigation here.

Anderson acknowledged Monday that suspects committed other crimes while their DNA languished.

"It did happen unfortunately and we are eagerly looking forward to prosecuting those repeat rapists," she said.

Lab workers tested a total 9,500 rape kits. Of that number, 6,600 were due to the backlog, officials said.

After testing the backlogged kits, officials said they had found 850 matches in the national DNA database. Houston Police have sent 29 cases found through the database to the District Attorney's Office for prosecution. Six of those criminal suspects are accused of being repeat rapists.

While law enforcement is moving ahead, for many sexual assault survivors, it's been an agonizing wait with few answers.

"Do you know what it's like to be afraid to be in a crowd or to walk down the street and keep looking behind back to make sure nobody is behind you?," said a survivor of one the 29 sexual assault cases now being prosecuted. "That's every day."

ABC-13 is withholding the name of the victim because of the nature of the crime.

"It seems like yesterday," she said."I don't know how many years got to go by for it not to be like that, but I know it's like yesterday. Especially when I go outside and have to go somewhere. I'm so fearful until I get home."

The city has changed its rape kit procedures and pledged to never let a backlog grow again.

"We can never erase the fact these evidence kits sat untested on property room shelves across the nation, but we can move forward in a way that makes us all proud." Parker said.

The rape kit backlog was found in 2002, when a state investigation uncovered severe problems in the Houston police crime lab.

According to an audit around that time: "the DNA Section was in shambles - plagued by a leaky roof, operating for years without a line supervisor, overseen by a technical leader who had no personal experience performing DNA analysis and who was lacking the qualifications required under the FBI standards, staffed by underpaid and undertrained analysts, and generating mistake-ridden and poorly documented casework."

Because of a result the state's findings, the DNA unit was temporarily shut down.

In 2013, Houston City Council, at the urging of Parker and with help from U.S. Sen John Cornyn, used $4.4 million to chip away at the rape kit backlog.
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