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Sheriff changes policy in evidence kits

Allows crime lab to identify more sexual assault offenders

Posted: February 21, 2009 11:41 p.m.
Updated: February 22, 2009 4:55 a.m.

More than 4,700 untested sexual assault evidence kits - so-called "rape kits" - are due to be tested by Crime Lab technicians following a change of policy by Sheriff Lee Baca.

"We plan to get through 800 tests this year," said Sheriff's Department Commander Earl Shields. "In a normal year, we test between 140 and 150 kits."

Department officials are crafting a plan to whittle away at the backlog of kits, Shields said.

Baca changed department policy after the Los Angeles Police Department became mired in a scandal over its backlog of sexual assault evidence kits, Shields said.

The untested kits are from cases that have been put on hold, that are deemed "cold" or in which suspects have pleaded guilty, Shields said.

Under the previous policy, "The investigating deputy determined whether we tested the rape kits at all," Shields said. If tests weren't ordered, the kits were shelved.

Under the new policy, instead of waiting for investigators to prompt the testing of collected evidence, the Crime Lab will test all the evidence in its possession, he said.

"The policy puts the crime lab in the driver seat instead of the passenger seat," said Anna Pembedjian, justice deputy for Fifth District Supervisor Michael Antonovich.

The sheriff reports to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors with monthly updates on the kit testing progress, she said. Thus far the progress and the plan exceed Antonovich's expectations, Pembedjian said.

"This allows us to identify and prosecute more offenders while building our DNA database," she said.

Testing all the kits is more than a policy change for Gail Ararbanel, director of the UCLA Rape Treatment Center.

"This is about people," she said. "We are leaving a possible sexual predator out there to commit more crimes," Ararbanel said.

Going though thousands of evidence kits in old cases can point to new investigations as DNA matches are made, Shields said.

"While the offender might not be identified for a crime today, we can link the person to other victims," Pembedjian said.


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