Battling the backlog: More than 1,100 potentially untested and unsolved sexual assault kits in KC

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - More than 1,000 potentially untested sexual assault kits are on an evidence room shelf here in Kern County. 

Some of those sexual assault kits date back nearly 40 years.

23ABC's I-Team investigated why there are so many that are potentially untested and how officials said they're working to stop the backlog from growing. 

“We’re struggling to keep up with what’s coming through the door," said Scott Spielman the Assistant District Attorney.

Spielman said each year between 200 and 250 sexual assault examinations are submitted in the county and Spielman said they're processing more cases quicker than they have in the past. 

However, their success is overshadowed by a large number of sexual assault kits sitting in a evidence room, some of which may be untested or even unsolved.

The Kern County Sheriff’s Office officials said they are still storing around 1,150 sexual assaults kits and the oldest dates back to 1979. They said they're unsure how many have actually been tested for a DNA match. 

"To err on the side of caution, the majority of kits were always kept. So that could impact why there’s so many," said Commander Larry McCurtain with the Kern County Sheriff's Office.

He said there are certain kits that have to be kept indefinitely such as murder cases.

The Sheriff’s Office is working to officially close cases in the backlog, but that means investigators have to go through each case by hand.

In September of 2014 Governor Jerry Brown signed AB-1517 into law encouraging all law enforcement agencies to send every sexual assault kit to the crime lab for faster processing.

But that was just a suggestion.

If the state required law enforcement to send every sexual assault kit to the crime lab, then state would have to provide funding.

The new law did spark chage here locally. The Kern County D.A.’s office came up with a new method to ensure every kit is tested.

"We are actually processing far more cases than we ever have because we have become more efficient at it and we’ve done it with less resources," said Spielman.

 They’ve done that by creating what they call a mini kit. It is a portion of the full kit that can be analyzed by the crime lab faster.

"We’re going to the areas where we’re most likely to find some type of dna material, dna profile present." said Spielman.

Garett Sugimoto is a DNA Technical Lead at the Kern Regional Crime Lab, he said the average turnaround time for the kits is about 40 days to get a report of examination back to the law enforcement agency that submitted it. 

Before 2014 kits used to take around 200 days to be completed.

Thanks to the mini kits and advances in technology such as robotics in the lab – they’re getting done faster than the state goal of 120 days.

The DNA collected is also being checked against the National Database of DNA profiles in hopes of finding a match and leading investigators to a suspect.

“We know the value of the evidence down the road,” said Spielman.

The updated process is helping keep the backlog down, develop DNA profiles and get criminals off the streets.

“I think it’s very beneficial to law enforcement and, even more so than law enforcement, is to the victims, because now victims aren’t waiting years and years and years and then find out OK, we have a DNA match," said Commander McCurtain. 

The Kern County Sheriff’s Office agrees that the backlogged number of cases is large.

However officials said most of the cases are old, some have already been adjudicated and others may have been unfounded.

It will just take time to go through each case by hand to determine the true number of outstanding cases.

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