Stung by criticism over its backlog of rape-kit evidence, the Los Angeles Police Department has begun bypassing its own crime lab in some instances in favor of a state facility known for its quick DNA analysis.
The Police Department's Scientific Investigation Division typically takes six to eight months to process rape-kit evidence and enter it into a state forensics database, where it can be matched against DNA taken from convicted felons.
But under the new Fast Track Forensic Program, developed by the Santa Monica-UCLA Rape Treatment Center, some LAPD and L.A. County sheriff's evidence is being sent to the California Department of Justice lab in Richmond for analysis within five days.
Evidence from two dozen LAPD sexual assault cases has been processed by the state lab so far this year. In one instance, a parolee suspected in a Hollywood rape case was linked to the crime through DNA evidence within two weeks and is now awaiting trial. Authorities also found a DNA match in a second rape case.
Gale Abarbanel, who heads the rape treatment center, testified before a state commission earlier this month that more than 5,000 LAPD rape kits have yet to undergo forensic analysis because of a lack of DNA-testing resources.
LAPD spokesman Lt. Paul Vernon said there are a total of 9,000 rape kits in storage. But the department's current backlog of DNA testing for sexual assault cases in its own lab is less than 300, he said.
"After reviewing the facts of a case, detectives don't always request that a sexual assault kit be analyzed," Vernon said, citing instances where a suspect admits to having had "consensual sex" with a victim. The decision over which cases get analyzed are based on the discretion of investigators and on the department's limited resources, he said.
The department, which has a DNA staff of 29, contracts out with other labs for analysis of about 400 cases annually, but not all of those are rape cases, Vernon said. Most labs also do not have as quick a turnaround as the state lab.
But Abarbanel said the majority of rape kits should be analyzed, even when the suspect claims he had consensual sex with a victim.
"DNA is critical because it can link the suspect to other crimes," she said, also noting that failure to act quickly can mean that a repeat offender remains free to target additional victims.
She cited the recent arrest in the Hollywood rape case as an example of the benefits that come from quick processing of DNA evidence.
In that case, the suspect confronted his victim at gunpoint the night of Jan. 3 in a parking lot just off of Hollywood Boulevard
The suspect ordered the 19-year-old woman to take him to her apartment. For the next 10 hours he repeatedly raped her, then insisted on being driven to a subway station.
The victim had a medical examination. The rape kit was sent to the state for evaluation. By Jan. 16, a Los Angeles man on parole for a burglary conviction had been linked to the case.
"With a crime as violent as this we don't know what else the suspect has done and what they are going to do," said Lt. Don Lehman. "To get such a quick turnaround is crucial for us."