‘Justice served’: Delaware sets new policies to test rape exam kits, speed up investigations

Delaware cleared a backlog of 1,235 kits in 2020, leading to the arrest of nine suspects. A new policy sets timelines to have kits tested.

A technician handles evidence in a sexual assault case, looking down at materials on a table.

File photo: A forensic analyst works on evidence in a sexual assault case in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center. Delaware has implemented a new policy that sets time limits for when rape exam kits must be tested. (Pat Sullivan/AP Photo, file)

Jeffrey King escaped justice for more than a quarter century after he attacked and sexually assaulted a stranger walking alone late at night on a Delaware street in 1993.

One key reason police couldn’t solve the crime is that the evidence obtained from the 22-year-old female victim when a nurse examined her at the hospital never got tested for DNA. Her evidence kit had languished, along with more than 1,200 others in Delaware, for years and years.

But after Delaware received $2.2 million in federal money to clear the backlog, the DNA obtained in the woman’s attack linked King to the 1993 attack. Newark police arrested King and in May he pleaded guilty to third-degree unlawful sexual intercourse and unlawful sexual penetration. King, 57, of Coatesville, Pa., is awaiting sentencing.

King is one of nine men arrested by police in Delaware for sex crimes agianst 23 women since Delaware started reducing its backlog in 2015. Another man arrested was Kili Mayfield, of Wilmington, who was convicted of raping and beating three women over a seven-year period and was sentenced to life in prison.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Delaware prosecutors say more arrests are pending here from ongoing investigations stemming from evidence obtained from the old tests.

The state completed testing of the 1,235 old kits in September 2020. Cognizant that cases which languish for years or decades amount to justice denied for rape victims, officials recently established policies to assure prompt testing of rape evidence kits to aid police investigations. The policies establish timelines for the collection, documentation, processing and investigation of the kits.

The state Attorney General’s Office adopted the new rules in collaboration with healthcare facilities and the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, an independent state body that oversaw testing of the old kits.

A close-up of a form that reads State of Delaware, Sexual Assault Evidence Collection.
With the backlog cleared, new state policies aim to speed testing to aid investigations of sexual assaults. (State of Delaware)

“These changes will aid the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault, help prevent future backlogs, and speed the wheels of justice for survivors,” Attorney General Kathy Jennings said.

The policies:

  • A law enforcement agency must collect a kit from the hospital within five days of an examination, unless the victim elects not to have their kit tested.
  • Officers must contact the state Division of Forensic Science (DFS), which has a DNA testing laboratory in Wilmington, “as soon as possible” to schedule a consultation to discuss the evidence collected and what will be tested.
  • All kits must be submitted to DFS within 30 days of the examination.
  • The lab should test and analyze the evidence within 30 days of receiving it. But allowing for the fact that some items might take additional time to test and analyze, the annual average time to complete testing and analysis shall not exceed 90 days.
  • If DNA is obtained, it must be entered into the FBI’s CODIS database, which has samples from about 3 million people convicted of serious crimes.
  • If DFS can’t meet the deadlines, untested kits should be sent to a federal or accredited private crime laboratory, at the state’s expense.
  • DFS officials must notify police within 14 days of learning whether evidence from a tested kit matches any offenders in the FBI database.
  • Police must contact the alleged victim and schedule an interview as needed, while victim services employees are to contact the person and connect them with appropriate resources.
  • All evidence kits associated with open cases must be preserved indefinitely by the investigating police agency.

John Evans, a former state police major who heads the Division of Forensic Science, said no kits “are being outsourced to private labs” and the current turnaround time for kit testing is 41 days.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor
A view from outside of a building, with the U.S. flag flying in front of it.
The Division of Forensic Science tests rape exam kits at its Wilmington laboratory. (State of Delaware)

Though 41 days is longer than the policy to test samples within 30 days, Evans pointed out that it’s “well within’’ the 90-day annual average time specified in the policy.

The money to clear the backlog came from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI), which has awarded more than $308 million nationwide to clear backlogs and provide other support to state and local governments.

New rape kit testing policies bring faster justice for victims

Prosecutor Erik Towne, who handles rape cases, said he’s overseeing investigations aided by testing of old kits, and expects to see some result in arrests.

“They’re going to be extremely useful in our cases going forward, not only to ensure the kits are being tested, but the way it’s been set up, it also should get us results to use in our prosecutions in a much quicker fashion than was possible before.”

The guarantee of testing for victims who agree to be examined “certainly will hopefully provide more comfort for them,” Towne said.

“In my experience, these are victims that are going through the worst possible thing in their life,’’ he said. “Not only is the assault itself traumatic and stressful but I know in speaking with victims and handling these cases, going through the sexual assault exam isn’t an easy thing either.”

“So this policy at least requires and guarantees that when they go through that test, when they go through that examination, that those swabs, those pieces that were collected, are being analyzed in every case,” he said.

Venita Garvin, who heads the Delaware Alliance Against Sexual Violence, says eliminating the backlog and taking steps to ensure there won’t be another one is critical for survivors.

Survivors “learn to live with the trauma as best they can, even when the evidence they provide has sat on shelves for months, years or decades,’’ Garvin said. “That simply means that it’s taking that much longer for the survivor to have some level of justice for the crime that has been perpetrated against him or her.”

A close-up of Venita Garvin, smiling.
Venita Garvin of the Delaware Alliance Against Sexual Violence welcomes the new policies. (Courtesy of Venita Garvin)

“The new policies will hopefully speed up the process for survivors as they are seeking legal remedies and justice. I think we are moving in the right direction.”

Mike Kelly, a former police officer who leads the SAKI program for the justice council, said the policy “is mirroring best practices” elsewhere across the country. Kelly said he’s confident that going forward, the estimated 140 kits that are collected each year will be expedited and prioritized.

“It tightens those timelines,’’ Kelly said of the new policy. “So that’s a great help for accountability, and making sure that we are getting those kits into the Division of Forensic Science and then the turnaround of getting them back to law enforcement and the continuance of the investigations.”

A headshot of Mike Kelly, smiling.
Mike Kelly’s heads the Delaware Criminal Justice Council, which oversaw the testing of old rape kits. (State of Delaware)

Kelly said the arrests, and prospects for more, are a godsend.

“In every one of those cases we were able to provide that closure to that victim,” Kelly said, “and have that case see the courtroom and justice served.’’

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal