Sexual assault cases subject of scrutiny by UT researchers

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Forensic evidence in sexual assault cases often sits in evidence rooms unexamined, and UT’s School of Social Work professors are doing research for a Justice Department initiative to determine why.

Annette Burrhus-Clay, executive director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault, said the association is aiding the school’s research team in their efforts to benefit victims by examining the testing process. Burrhus-Clay said a police department may only test kits for unidentified assailants if resources are low, but she said this can be a problem.

“What we found in states that routinely test the rape kits, they’ll find that this DNA matches up with DNA that was in another case,” Burrhus-Clay said.

Forensic evidence from a sexual assault case is known as a sexual assault kit. Kits can include documentation about bruises or other trauma the victim experienced, hair follicles, bodily fluids, clothing and bedding. Many untested kits remain in property rooms of police departments instead of being tested in their crime labs.

She said testing the sexual assault kits can provide victims with closure.

“When it’s not done, I think that sets back a victim emotionally,” Burrhus-Clay said.

The research is funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice, which is part of the Justice Department. The Institute is awarding $1 million to both Wayne County, Mich., and the city of Houston: the two places the projects are taking place. The Houston Police Department crime lab contracted UT’s School of Social Work and Sam Houston State University to conduct the research.

Noel Busch-Armendariz, associate social work professor and director of the Institute on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, is a co-principal investigator for the research efforts and said some untested kits date back 20 years.

“Our role is really to find out from the sexual assault victims the impact that processing the kits is going to have on their lives and how we should notify victims whose kits are or are not going to be processed,” Busch-Armendariz said.

Part of the School of Social Work’s role is to understand why kits aren’t being tested.

Testing a kit costs $1,200 and is part of regular police budget, Busch-Armendariz said, but she does not think funding is the issue.

“I think that the complexity of sexual assault crimes is the reason they haven’t been tested because a huge percentage of sexual assault crimes happen where the victim is known to or is related to the offender,” Busch-Armendariz said.

While UT’s researchers are focusing on how victims are affected, researchers at Sam Houston State University are examining why the criminal justice system is not testing some kits. William Wells, associate professor in the College of Criminal Justice at Sam Houston State and principal investigator for the project, said the Houston Police Department has worked with Sam Houston State on past projects.

Wells said the grant provides for “action research,” in which researchers play an active role with practitioners and policymakers. He also said there have not been many studies into how investigators use forensic evidence.

“We really truly don’t have an idea why these kits have gone untested,” Wells said. “We still don’t really understand the source of the problem.”