DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Catching sexual predators before they strike again. It's part of the mission behind a statewide initiative to test thousands of backlogged rape kits across Florida.
"It is a huge problem in American policing today - that DNA turnaround," said Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood. "Sex offenders don't offend one time in their life, they offend and they re-offend and they offend until they get caught. And the most powerful tool we have as a community to protect ourselves is DNA."
The state’s lead agency for getting DNA from rape kits tested is the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, or FDLE.
Two years ago, the agency began processing a massive backlog of Sexual Assault Kits (SAKs) that were collected from victims but never tested. Just how many kits? About 8,600.
"A victim's need for justice doesn't exhaust with time," said Danny Banks, special agent in charge at the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). "When we've got a victim out there that has the right to have their case solved, it's our responsibility to do everything we can to get them to that point of justice."
The same year the agency started its surge to clear old cases, the Florida Legislature passed a law requiring all new SAKs to be processed by a lab within 120 days. In essence, the FDLE was not only trying to play catch-up with old cases, but was now faced with a new state-mandated deadline to make sure all types of DNA evidence is processed in a timely manner. How many new kits needed to be tested: about 4,000 since July of 2016.
"Never should there be a time where a victim is waiting months and months and months for a solution to their crime - or even anybody to look at it," said Banks.
According to the Florida attorney general's website, testing the sexual assault kits will allow DNA information to be uploaded into state and federal criminal databases to potentially solve cold cases, and identify serial rapists and murderers who commit crimes across multiple jurisdictions.
Prior to the 2016 law, Florida did not require rape kits to be tested. But now law enforcement agencies have 30 days from the start of their investigations to submit their evidence.
The FDLE confirms to News 6 that of the 3,987 SAKs collected since July 2016, the agency has processed 3,281 (as of the end of January), a bit more than 80% of the kits. Of the 8,600 backlogged cases, the state has already tested 6,161 of them – a completion rate of almost 72%.
"Our average turnaround time on those cases right now here in Orlando is less than 80 days," Banks told News 6. "That's important to solving crimes. That's important to getting real bad people off the street quickly."
Banks says eradicating this backlog is their highest priority at the state labs. He says that the FDLEhopes to get the rest of the 2,400+-plus outstanding SAKs processed well before June 2019.
"For everyone who's a part of this, that's a success," added Banks.
CODIS Hits Out of the aforementioned 6,161 SAKs tested, 1,461 of them resulted in a CODIS hit.
CODIS is the Combined DNA Index System, a criminal justice DNA database run by the FBI. A hit means someone's DNA has matched that of a previously indexed known offender.
"Sometimes that immediate result of our analysis gives them the ability to immediately arrest the suspect," said Banks. "Sometimes it’s just a lead for them."
According to Chitwood, more than 200 untested rape kits were sent from his county to the FDLE when the new initiative started. Two of them led to major breakthroughs.
"Last year we got a hit on a 20-year-old gang rape, and now this year we got a hit on a 10-year-old rape," said Sheriff Chitwood.
Chitwood says oftentimes law enforcement can bog down the line of evidence to be tested by sending off every single case, even those involving known perpetrators. His solution: be more selective and have the attorney general prioritize all unknown rape suspect cases first, and then test the other cases in subsequent order.
"We should be rushing to send off the unknown suspect because that's your serial killer, that's your serial rapist," said Sheriff Chitwood. "The guy who you know who did it, he ain't going nowhere."
Banks adds that the FDLE is well on its way to having all the backlogged kits tested by the June 2019 deadline set by the state. One reason they’ve been able to get through so many cases: funding to outsource some of the work to private labs.
"Too often we are asked to do more with less," said Banks. "This is an example of us being asked to do more with more."
Angela Starke, who handles communications for the FDLE, confirms to News 6 there are three private labs assisting FDLE with the backlog in addition to the six statewide agency labs serving seven regions of Tallahassee, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Orlando, Tampa Bay, Fort Myers and Miami.
Banks says the Florida Legislature allocated more than $2.3 million to get this monumental task done, which allowed the FDLE to get the extra resources to work through the backlog and get the DNA results and evidence back to law enforcement as quickly as possible.