Developing Empirically Informed Policies for Sexual Assault Kit DNA Testing: Is It Too Late to Test Kits Beyond the Statute of Limitations?

Date01 February 2019
Published date01 February 2019
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2019, Vol. 30(1) 3 –27
© The Author(s) 2016
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/0887403416638507
Developing Empirically
Informed Policies for
Sexual Assault Kit DNA
Testing: Is It Too Late to
Test Kits Beyond the
Statute of Limitations?
Rebecca Campbell1, Steven J. Pierce1,
Dhruv B. Sharma1, Hannah Feeney1,
and Giannina Fehler-Cabral2
A growing body of research indicates that there are thousands of sexual assault
kits (SAKs) in police property storage facilities that have never been submitted for
DNA forensic testing. Some of these rape kits may be quite dated, and the statute
of limitations (SOL) for prosecution of the case may have expired. Whether testing
such kits could still provide useful information for criminal justice system personnel is
unknown. To address this gap in the literature and to inform policy regarding rape kit
testing, we randomly sampled 700 previously untested SAKs from Detroit, MI: 350
were presumed to be beyond the SOL for prosecution (based on the date the SAK
was collected), and 350 were still within the SOL. All SAKs were submitted for DNA
testing, and then we quantified and compared the forensic testing outcomes. At issue
was whether these older SAKs would yield DNA profiles that were eligible for entry
into Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the federal DNA forensic database, and
whether these profiles would match (“hit”) to other criminal offenses catalogued in
CODIS. Rates for presumed SOL-expired SAKs and unexpired SAKs were compared
via a continuation-ratio model and equivalence tests. The rates of CODIS-eligible
DNA profiles, CODIS hits, and serial sexual assault CODIS hits were statistically
equivalent in the SOL-expired and SOL-unexpired groups. Testing older SAKs has
1Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, USA
2Harder + Company Community Research, Los Angeles, CA, USA
Corresponding Author:
Rebecca Campbell, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, 127 Psychology Building, 316
Physics Road, East Lansing, MI 48824, USA.
638507CJPXXX10.1177/0887403416638507Criminal Justice Policy ReviewCampbell et al.
4 Criminal Justice Policy Review 30(1)
potential utility to the criminal justice system because these kits produced DNA
matches to other crimes, including other sexual assault crimes, at a rate equivalent to
current, SOL-unexpired SAKs.
sexual assault kit, forensic testing, DNA analysis, statute of limitations, continuation-
ratio, equivalence tests
A growing number of social science studies and media reports indicate that thou-
sands—perhaps hundreds of thousands—of sexual assault kits (SAKs) have never
been tested for DNA evidence (Campbell, Feeney, Fehler-Cabral, Shaw & Horsford,
2016; Human Rights Watch, 2009, 2010; Lovrich et al., 2004; Peterson, Johnson,
Herz, Graziano, & Oehler, 2012; Reilly, 2015; Strom & Hickman, 2010). An SAK,
also termed a “rape kit,” contains biological specimens (e.g., semen, blood, saliva) that
are collected by medical professionals from the victim’s body after an assault
(Department of Justice [DOJ], 2013). Law enforcement personnel are responsible for
taking the completed SAKs into custody and submitting them to forensic laboratories
so that the samples can be analyzed for DNA (DOJ, 2013). If a profile can be extracted,
it may be entered into Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), the national forensic
DNA database, which consists of reference DNA profiles from arrestees/convicted
offenders as well as samples obtained at crime scenes (Butler, 2005; Jobling & Gill,
2004; Stevens, 2001). When a new DNA profile is entered into CODIS, it is compared
with those reference DNA samples, and if there is a match (termed a “hit”), then law
enforcement personnel have a strong investigative lead, possible corroboration of the
offender’s identity, and/or the discovery of a serial offender through DNA matches
across multiple crimes. However, many law enforcement officers are not routinely
submitting SAKs for DNA testing and instead are storing them in evidence property
facilities, unexamined and unanalyzed (Strom & Hickman, 2010). Large numbers of
untested SAKs have been documented in multiple cities, including New York City
(~16,000 SAKs); Los Angeles (~13,000); Memphis (~12,000); Detroit (~11,000);
Houston (~6,000); Cleveland, Dallas, and Las Vegas (~4,000 in each city); and
Milwaukee, Phoenix, San Diego, and Toledo (~2,000-3,000 in each city; www.endthe-
A pressing issue for practitioners and policy makers is what jurisdictions should do
with older SAKs if they have accumulated large numbers of untested rape kits over
many years. Would forensic testing of kits that date back five, 10, or even 20 years
provide useful and actionable information for criminal justice system personnel? A
key issue to consider is the statute of limitations (SOL) for the sexual assault case
associated with the SAK. In eight states, there is no SOL for felony-level sexual assault
crimes, but most states do have time limits on prosecution (National Center for Victims
of Crime, 2013). If a case can no longer be prosecuted, should the rape kit be tested?
This is a complicated issue because even if the SOL has expired, the evidence within
those kits could still be useful to police and prosecutors. For example, if the offender

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