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"Just Bring Us the Real Ones": The Role of Forensic Crime Laboratories in Guarding the Gateway to Justice for Sexual Assault Victims

NCJ Number
301344
Journal
Journal of Interpersonal Violence Dated: 2020
Author(s)
R. Campbell; G. Fehler-Cabral
Date Published
2020
Annotation

This study examined the communication and collaboration between police and crime-lab personnel regarding sexual assault kit (SAK) submissions within a community with large numbers of unsubmitted rape kits.

Abstract

Throughout the United States, hundreds of thousands of sexual assault kits (SAKs), also termed “rape kits”, have never been submitted by law enforcement personnel to a crime laboratory for forensic DNA testing. Prior research indicates that negative stereotypes about victims influence police decisions to submit kits for testing, but forensic crime laboratory personnel may also be involved in SAK submission decisions. Drawing from 3 years of ethnographic observations and longitudinal qualitative interviews, the study found that the police department’s crime lab did not have sufficient resources to test all rape kits in police custody, which is a problem forensic laboratories are facing throughout the United States; however, the study also found that access to this limited resource was controlled by crime lab personnel and their rape-myth beliefs about which victims and which cases were considered worthy of the time, effort, and attention of the criminal justice system. Lab personnel emphasized that police should only submit “real” cases for forensic DNA testing, which they typically defined as physically violent stranger-perpetrated sexual assaults; “shady” cases did not merit testing, which they defined as known-offender assaults, reports made by adolescent victims, and cases in which the victim may have been engaged in sex work. There were marked similarities in police and lab personnel’s rape-myth acceptance, and stakeholders readily agreed that they did have a common understanding about which victims were not credible and therefore which SAKs did not merit testing. These findings are discussed in relation to recommendations from the National Academy of Sciences for the independence and autonomy of the forensic sciences from law enforcement. (publisher abstract modified)