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New Mexico’s rape kit backlog is worst in the nation, auditor says

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The number of untested rape kits per capita in New Mexico far surpasses any other state in the nation, according to a special audit by the Office of the State Auditor.

The report found there are 254 untested kits for every 100,000 New Mexico residents. Michigan has the next most untested kits with 153 for every 100,000 residents.

Auditor Tim Keller said reversing the problem here would take millions of dollars in resources, time, people and a change in culture. Keller and advocates for victims of sexual assault announced the audit findings Tuesday during a news conference.

“It’s not that easy to talk about,” Keller said. “These kits represent an hour if not longer of someone’s life when they had the courage to go in … and give these samples during one of the hardest times of their life.”

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The audit report included an analysis of problems that led to the high number of untested kits and suggestions for what the state can do to correct the problem. Among the suggestions were increased funding for testing kits, increasing training for law enforcement and adopting policies that call for every kit to be tested within a minimal amount of time.

As of last month, there were 5,302 untested rape kits throughout the state of New Mexico, which was down only slightly from the 5,440 untested kits in December 2015. That was when the large number of untested kits was first reported.

The kits were collected during investigations by law enforcement agencies throughout the state. But the lion’s share of the cases – 3,948 or 74 percent of the kits that haven’t been tested – were collected during investigation in the Albuquerque metro area. Some of the kits were collected as far back as 1988.

Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry announced in July that he was setting aside $200,000 to try to get rid of some of the backlog. Berry’s program called for three retired detectives to be brought in to prioritize the backlog and select some of the kits to have them tested.

But the audit found that clearing Albuquerque police’s backlog would cost about $7 million. Keller said there is also a lack of money and uniform policies throughout the state that have contributed to the backlog by other agencies.

“Both the state and the city of Albuquerque must break the cycle of under-funding law enforcement,” the report states.

Albuquerque police have their own lab for testing rape kits, and the agency previously tested kits for the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office. The state Department of Public Safety operates the lab that tests kits collected by other law enforcement agencies except for the FBI, which investigates rapes in Indian country.

To complete the audit, police departments throughout the state – from Farmington to Las Cruces – were interviewed and evidence was analyzed. Law enforcement agencies also were surveyed about why they hadn’t sent in the kits to be tested.

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The results were troubling, Keller said. For example, law enforcement agencies said that 21 percent of rape kits weren’t tested because investigators didn’t find the victim to be credible and 21 percent of investigators said they didn’t have the kits tested because of a lack of cooperation from the victim.

Additionally, law enforcement couldn’t explain why 36 percent of the kits weren’t tested, even though state law requires the kits be sent to a lab for testing, he said.

“Changing a culture takes time,” said Connie Monahan, the statewide sexual assault nurse exam coordinator.

Monahan read a letter from a woman named Charlene during the news conference. As a college student, Charlene was attacked and brutally raped when she worked at a clothing store in Las Cruces.

Charlene’s rape kit went untested for years. But eventually the kit was processed, and it led to an arrest, conviction and a nine-year prison sentence for her attacker, more than 13 years after the assault.

“I felt a closure I didn’t realize I was in need of,” Charlene said, according to her letter.

Despite the grave statistics found in the audit, officials and advocates for victims said there is hope the state can work to end the backlog and process rape kits in a timely fashion going forward.

Awareness of the high number of untested kits here has led lawmakers to introduce legislation to fund testing the kits.

And Sarita Nair, the general counsel for the auditor’s office, said that during the audit several police agencies, particularly Farmington and Gallup police in northwest New Mexico, sent in hundreds of rape kits to be tested for evidence.

“It has to do with the power of sunshine,” Keller said. “People now do not want to be responsible for a police department sitting on a bunch of untested rape kits, and that’s actually a good thing.”

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