Rape Evidence Often Goes Untested For a Decade or More

When I picked up the September issue of Marie Claire, my expectations began and ended at the cover– a Mary-Kate Olson profile, some insights from Tim Gunn, an expose on online dating and, to my slight irritation, “Diet Secrets: What Women Really Eat.” Imagine my surprise, then, when I flipped to page 166 and saw the faces of 28 women staring back at me, each with a caption: “Still waiting after 17 years,” “Waited 9 months,” “Case closed without testing,” “Rape kit destroyed.”

Marie Claire’s feature on the devastating consequences of neglected rape kits is one that leaps off the page and hits you in the stomach. It tells the story of Helena Lazaro’s brutal rape in 1996 and the non-response that took place afterward in painstaking, disturbing detail. Lazaro then waited 13 years for her rape kit (a compilation of DNA evidence taken after the crime) to be tested, only to discover that the same man who had raped her went on to rape others, including his wife -- because Lazaro’s rape kit went untested, it took thirteen years and three victims for the perpetrator to get the conviction he deserved.

The article serves as a warning to those precincts who let rape kits pile up untested in back corners, often letting sexual offenders free to keep assaulting people for years, that the consequences of such laziness can be dire. Its quote from Kaethe Morris Hoffer, legal director of the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, may unfortunately say it best: “For one woman to be believed,” she told Marie Claire, “someone else has to be raped.”

The feature has brought mainstream media attention to this critically underestimated issue, with news outlets such as The Daily Beast, Newsweek and the Los Angeles Times picking up on the story of backlogged rape kits and the proposed laws that would – finally – prevent the backlogging.

More interesting still is the upcoming Law and Order: SVU episode that will feature a story based on Lazaro’s own, with Jennifer Love Hewitt playing a woman who is the victim of multiple unsolved rapes. The episode airs September 29th, and will hopefully continue the already burgeoning public interest in rape kit testing.

The unapologetically bold Marie Claire feature sticks with you far past the confines of your commute, and is thus a definite step towards eliminating rape kit backlog for good. We can only hope, however, that this media moment for the issue becomes a driving force rather than a mere moment; that way, definitive change can be affected, and rape victims can be guaranteed the chance to have the crimes of their assaults solved as is their right.

This story originally appeared as a Women's Media Center exclusive. The Marie Claire article discussed in this piece can be read in its entirety here.

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