All around the country, states are trying to address a mounting number of untested sexual assault evidence kits. And even though New Mexico’s budget is tight, the Legislature found $1.6 million to work through the backlog here. At a meeting in Albuquerque on Monday, stakeholders gathered to talk about what’s next.
There were nearly 5,500 unprocessed sexual assault evidence kits in New Mexico as of the end of last year, some of them dating all the way back to 1988.
State Auditor Tim Keller explained to a roomful of advocates, law enforcement and politicians that his office has jurisdiction over inventory. That’s why, he said, he was able to finally get a comprehensive count on New Mexico’s backlog, across state, county and city police departments. "This case represents, often, the worst day and the worst hour in an individual’s life," he said. "Now, this obviously though is much much more than inventory, right? And that’s why even one of these kits that is not processed appropriately absolutely matters."
Some of those kits, Keller confirmed, might even include cases where the survivor was a child but is now an adult, and doesn’t remember going through the evidence collection process.
When Sarita Nair heard about untested evidence, her mind went to sexual assault interviews that she sat in on with kids that she fostered. "And I know in my heart that those officers would do anything that it took to put these offenders behind bars. So the backlog was really puzzling to me."
Nair, who’s also a lawyer with the Auditor’s Office, led the charge there to count the kits. But she also found that the problem is nationwide—not enough funding is put into processing DNA evidence, turnaround times grow long, and cases just aren’t prosecuted.
Nair said it’s important to work on even cases that are beyond the statue of limitations. DNA evidence from one assault might connect multiple others and identify serial offenders.
In order to restore trust with survivors, she said, the state has to commit to fixing the problem. "I think No. 1 is to just to acknowledge that this was a failing on a number of different levels."
Survivors, she said, should reach out to their local law enforcement agency if they feel they can.
Capt. Andi Taylor is one of the people sifting through these cases. She’s with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. "I’m not happy that there are 488 kits that haven’t been tested. But that’s a workable number."
Taylor said until about two years ago, deputies didn’t really know about the backlog. "We were not aware that the kits weren’t being tested," she said. "We were turning them into evidence as our procedures dictate."
So the department switched labs and began hand-delivering evidence to Santa Fe where turnaround time for new kits is three months.
As she digs through old cases, Taylor said she was surprised to find that a number of them were tried in court anyway and got a guilty verdict even without DNA evidence. "Our detectives and our sergeants and our advocates and also our survivors have done a phenomenal job in working with what they had and seeing that through with the justice system."
Advocates like Connie Monahan have been working for years to get the backlog processed. She’s the statewide coordinator for the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners—the people who often collect evidence from a survivor. "We see it not being used or not being tested or applied in court. It’s so frustrating."
So Monahan’s thrilled with the momentum the issue’s picked up. She’s been traveling the state with the auditor to meet with law enforcement and advocates to talk about getting the work done. But she said any new guidelines for moving cases along have to be flexible. "Each survivor’s story is going to be so different from the others, that whatever policy or program we put in place, it has to be able to be modified for that person standing in front of me at that particular point."
The Auditor’s Office said making sure the evidence that’s been piling up around the state for the last couple of decades gets tested isn’t just a public safety issue. It’s part of honoring promises made to survivors.
KUNM’s Public Health New Mexico project is funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Con Alma Health Foundation and McCune Charitable Foundation. A map of where the State Auditor found untested sexual assault evidence kits can be found at publichealthnm.org.