Law helps solve sex assault cases, but creates backlog

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In May 2013, detectives collected a mask and knife they believed were used just moments earlier in the robbery of a nearby convenience store. DNA testing on the items has led them to a suspect, but it took 17 months for the process to play out.

Oscar Gomez has been charged with aggravated robbery after his DNA profile returned a match with DNA taken from the mask and weapon. An arrest warrant says surveillance video from the Chevron Food Mart on East Ben White Boulevard shows a masked suspect wielding a knife while demanding money from the cash register. Gomez’s profile was in a database after previous arrests on burglary, theft and drug charges.

Still, he was not charged until a year and a half later because of a backlog at the Austin Police DNA lab.

“Up until the rape kit law, we were mostly able to keep cases more current in the 30-90 day range,” said lab supervisor Jeff Sailus.

That time range has now ballooned to eight months and the law he referred to is a 2011 law sponsored by Sen. Wendy Davis requiring all rape kits be sent for lab testing.

Before the 2011 law, investigating officers may or may not have requested a kit be tested based on the specifics of a particular case. Now that discretion is gone and all kits must be submitted within 30 days. The law broadens the DNA database with more profiles which could help solve future sexual assault cases.

However, it also has slowed down the process for other cases awaiting DNA testing.

“The majority of what we are focusing on right now is the sexual assault kits,” said Sailus.

Nearly 1,200 rape kits from cases prior to the implementation of the 2011 law have been sent to a private lab and will be paid for with grant money. But all cases after the new law are being tested by the APD lab and the backlog sits at 780 cases, 150 of which have been assigned.

Of the 630 unassigned cases, a little more than 200 are sexual assault cases. It all adds up to a backlog that typically takes eight months before cases are tested, but Sailus said violent crimes like sexual assault are likely to be pushed through the system more quickly in the interest of public safety.

“We rely on detectives to help us prioritize which cases are important to them.”

With a recent grant and two additional positions added in the 2015 budget, APD hopes to have the backlog back to a 30-60 day turnaround within a year.

A recent KXAN Investigation found the backlog for latent print testing is even longer that the DNA backlog.

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