This story was originally published by the Institute for Public Service Reporting on August 4, 2020.
More than a decade after DNA was first used to convict an American of rape, testing remained rare in sex crimes investigations in Memphis.
Available records indicate the Memphis Police Department may have tested as few as 15 percent of rape kits for DNA in 2000 and 2001, years after a landmark 1987 Florida case propelled DNA toward becoming a standard law enforcement tool.
MPD continued to test just a portion of kits collected even after 2002, when the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation finally gained access to the FBI’s nationwide database of DNA profiles, the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS.
Police and critics agree DNA testing took time to catch on here — as it did in many parts of the country — but they differ starkly on the reasons behind MPD’s 2013 revelation it was sitting on one of the nation’s largest “backlogs” of untested rape kits.
Though MPD now tests new kits within 96 hours, police say several factors contributed to the backlog of 12,164 rape kits the agency had amassed by 2013:
- A kit’s “value as evidence varies from case to case,” the city’s lawyers said in responses to a federal lawsuit. They argue a detective may have had a “host” of “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons” for not testing a kit, including cases when the victim refused to prosecute, the statute of limitations had run, the assailant was caught in the act or was already known by the victim.
- Though many kits in the backlog weren’t tested for DNA they were properly tested based on technology of the time. Until the mid-1990s, when the first DNA testing became available here, rape kits routinely were tested by the Shelby County Health Department for blood type and secretor status, a category for individuals who secrete antigens into body fluids. Those tests at times could exclude a suspect but they couldn’t positively identify an individual.
- In addition, MPD had partially tested for DNA in about a third of the backlogged kits by December 2013. Records show 4,086 of the reported 12,164 kits had been checked for serology, an initial test to determine if there is enough biological material for a full DNA test. “The reason they weren’t sent on to DNA is because they didn’t find any DNA,” said Wilton Cleveland, a former MPD sex crimes supervisor who retired in 2016.
And Memphis was hardly alone. Spurred by media reports and official investigations, police in Cleveland, Detroit, New York and other cities announced they were sitting on large stockpiles of unprocessed kits. So great was the phenomenon, President Barack Obama’s administration announced in 2014 it would earmark $35 million to process an estimated 400,000 untested kits nationwide.