Rep. Ami Bera, D-Elk Grove, is running a television advertisement suggesting that his Republican opponent for Congress, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones, allowed rapists to go free.
The ad states that “68 percent of rape kits in Sacramento County go unprocessed” and that Jones failed to test DNA evidence and hand it to the FBI. Following is the text of the ad and an analysis:
I’m Doctor Ami Bera, and I approve this message.
When sixty-eight percent of rape kits in Sacramento County go unprocessed, justice is shelved.
Sheriff Scott Jones left DNA evidence needed to prosecute rapists untested.
Jones failed in getting evidence handed over to the FBI.
Rapists allowed to go free. Cold cases unsolved.
The Bee says quote “These crimes are too serious to leave evidence left on a shelf.”
Scott Jones can’t do his job now, and can’t do the job in Congress.
The advertisement’s implication that rapists have been allowed to go free under Jones as “sixty-eight percent of rape kits in Sacramento go unprocessed” is a stretch.
Rape kits contain clothing, hair samples, DNA swabs and other evidence painstakingly collected from sexual assault victims in a hospital exam that can take hours. Bera’s statement that 68 percent of the rape kits in Sacramento County go unprocessed is based on a 2014 California state audit that examined how kits were handled from 2011 through 2013.
The audit notes that since January 2014 the Sacramento County District Attorney’s crime lab has begun processing all rape kits within the sheriff’s jurisdiction as soon as they’re received at the lab. So it appears no rape kits in the area currently go unprocessed.
Bera’s ad includes graphics noting the statistics on unprocessed rape kits are from 2011 to 2013. So he’s not claiming they’re current. Jones was first elected as Sacramento County sheriff in 2010, and the advertisement is correct that the audit found 68 percent of Sacramento County rape kits from 2011 through 2013 had not been analyzed as of March 31, 2014.
So did that translate to rapists allowed to go free and cold cases unsolved?
The auditors reviewed a small slice of the cases in question and concluded investigators had “reasonable” explanations for not requesting a crime lab analysis. That could include cases where the suspect confessed, where the issue was about whether the sex was consensual rather than if it happened, or if the victim no longer wanted the investigation to continue.
“In our review, we did not identify any negative effects on the investigation of those cases that resulted from the decisions not to request analyses,” the audit found.
Discretion to decide which kits to test, though, does have the potential to lead to decisions based on error and bias. The audit also looked at the police departments in San Diego and Oakland, and found that 53 percent of the kits in San Diego and 29 percent in Oakland had not been analyzed.
There are also benefits to testing the rape kits beyond the specific case at hand. The analysis can produce a DNA profile of the suspect that is uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System and shared with law enforcement across the country.
That can help nab serial rapists and solve cold cases. The audit noted that DNA of people arrested for felony sexual assault in California is already sent to the FBI database regardless of rape kit testing – but that does not happen in cases where the assailant is unknown.
The Sacramento County District Attorney’s office, which runs the crime lab, said in its response to the audit that as of October 2014 every single one of the rape kits identified as unprocessed in the audit had been analyzed. The auditors could not verify if that’s true.
There’s some question about how rape kits were handled in Sacramento County. Jan Scully, a Jones supporter who was the county district attorney from 1995 through 2014, released a statement in response to Bera’s ad saying that for more than 20 years all rape kits went directly from the hospital to the crime lab.
“With extremely rare exceptions, there are no rape kits ‘sitting on the shelves’ and there have not been for more than two decades,” Scully said in the statement.
The audit, though, quotes an unnamed sergeant in the Sacramento sheriff’s department’s sexual assault bureau saying his investigators had been responsible for the transport of rape kits to the crime lab prior to January 2013. The Sacramento sergeant is quoted in the audit giving an example of the kind of reasoning used to decide not to ask for testing of a kit.
“A sergeant in the Sacramento Sheriff’s Sexual Assault and Elder Abuse Bureau stated that investigators would most likely not request kit analysis in cases where the victim had not returned the investigator’s phone calls,” the audit said.
The Bera advertisement is correct in citing the California state audit’s finding that most Sacramento County rape kits from 2011 through 2013 had not been processed.
There’s lack of evidence, though, for the ad’s suggestion of “rapists allowed to go free” under Jones. The auditors said that, at least in the cases they looked at, lack of testing did not hurt the investigations.
Failing to test the kits and send the DNA results to the FBI could harm investigations into other cases. If the Sacramento County District Attorney’s office is to be believed, though, all of the kits had been tested by October 2014 and the DNA put in the nationwide database.
While it took longer than it should to complete the work, that doesn’t necessarily mean rapists went free.
And while the Bera ad’s graphic is clear that the statistics are from 2011 to 2013, the advertisement says kits “go unprocessed” and does not acknowledge that the crime lab now tests all kits upon receiving them. That could leave viewers with the impression that kits are currently going untested.