In our blog entry from July 1, 2010 (“Innocence Commission to Begin; Prosecutors Grumble”), the points raised by the naysayers of Florida’s newly founded Innocence Commission are addressed, namely the point suggesting the diversion of the public’s dollars from the establishment of the Innocence Commission to the strengthening of the DNA labs administered by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. To further highlight the irrationality of that suggestion, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan points out that the matter is not so much an inadequacy of our nation’s DNA labs; it is, in fact, a lack of their sufficient use.
Madigan details this point in The Huffington Post, using Illinois as a case study:
Lavinia Masters was 13 when a rapist broke into her bedroom in the dark of night, put a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her if she reported the crime.
Hours later, undeterred by the threats, Lavinia underwent the painstaking process for collecting DNA evidence, determined to help police find and prosecute her attacker.
That was 1985.
Almost 20 years passed. The evidence sat untested, and the case remained unsolved, with her attacker still potentially at large.
But around 2006, the local police department began to sift through its backlog of untested DNA kits, when it was discovered that a man already in prison for committing other sexual assaults was linked to Lavinia’s case.
I had the chance to learn about Lavinia’s disturbing story recently, while doing an interview with CNN. Shockingly, her case isn’t unusual. It’s part of a national problem.
Thousands, and by some estimates hundreds of thousands, of rape kits are sitting untested, collecting dust in police departments’ evidence lockers around the country. Meanwhile, victims’ attackers remain free to roam the streets and assault other innocent children and women.
In Illinois alone, there remain at least 4,000 untested kits stored away in police departments throughout the state, according to Human Rights Watch.
Ask anyone to name the most serious crimes – rape and murder always top the list. I cannot imagine our criminal justice system ignoring important evidence in a murder case. How then can we stand by as vital evidence in tens of thousands of rape cases sits on shelves ignored?
What message does this send to the children and women who are the primary victims of sexual assault when law enforcement doesn’t take their cases seriously?
When a rape victim undergoes the long, invasive process of collecting evidence from her body, she puts faith in our justice system to find her attacker and prosecute him. When those evidence kits wind up ignored and attackers remain free, other victims of sexual assault are discouraged from coming forward. They don’t believe justice will be pursued.
So maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that in Illinois, as few as 30 percent of rapes are reported to police, according to the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. We can’t tolerate a justice system that requires a victim to endure a such a painstaking process only to dismiss her in the long run.
Hence, sharpening a tool does no good if there is no effort being made to use it. What is the point of pouring more money into DNA labs that are not being adequately used for the purpose that they are meant to fulfill? THAT is one of the many reasons why we need the Innocence Commission: to ensure we are doing everything we can to hammer our criminal justice system into a system that is truly just.
And, for the record, Illinois is, indeed, taking measures to address this issue. Madigan takes care to detail the state’s efforts:
An initiative by my office signed into law July 6 will help assure the system no longer fails these victims. We convened a working group last fall to develop an effective statewide policy for gathering and analyzing evidence in sexual assault cases. As a result, at the beginning of this year’s legislative session, we introduced a bill that would make Illinois the first state in the nation to mandate the testing of evidence collected in cases of sexual assault. This measure gained unanimous support in the General Assembly.
Under this new law, investigating law enforcement agencies are required to submit all evidence of sexual assault to the crime lab within 10 days of receiving it from a hospital. It also requires law enforcement agencies to provide the Illinois State Police an inventory of all untested kits in their possession to establish a timeline to complete their analyses.
Likewise, in examining Florida’s wrongful convictions, the Innocence Commission aims to pull any such thorns out of the heel of justice to ensure Florida isn’t left behind in pursuit of this just cause. Let’s support this advent of greater justice!