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Federal, state lawmakers aim to test backlog of rape kits

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AMARILLO - Right now federal and Texas lawmakers are working to clear the backlog of untested rape evidence kits.

A vote is expected soon on a bill proposed by U.S. Senator for Texas, John Cornyn, last year. That bill aims to take serial rapists off the streets.

Twenty-thousand boxes, each with forensic evidence that represents someone's worst nightmare, sit collecting dust in evidence bins across Texas.

Texas police departments are required to report the number of untested rape kits to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Amarillo has 950 untested kits.

But the head of the Amarillo Police Department's Sex Crime Unit, Martin Birkenfeld, said that does not mean there are 950 unsolved cases.

"I'm certain that most of those cases were probably not sent for a reason," Birkenfeld said. "That's based off the way we've done business here."

Birkenfeld said most cases are solved by confession or witness testimony, and there is no need to send in the rape kit for DNA testing. It's also common for the victims to decide they do not want to prosecute.

It would take approximately $11 million to send all of Texas's untested kits to a lab.

Many police departments, including Amarillo Police, fear doing so would hinder solving new cases, much more than helping solve old ones.

"The harm would be that it's a waste of money in some cases," Birkenfeld said. "It clogs up a laboratory somewhere, testing a case where the results are not going to be critical to a prosecution."

Many say a price can't be put on justice. Becky O'Neal is the coordinator of the Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners (SANE).

Panhandle victims who report sexual assault within 95 hours after a crime occurs go to Northwest Texas Hospital in Amarillo to a physical exam from a SANE nurse that could later be used in court.

"If you've had a sexual assault examiner take evidence off your body and put it in a kit, you'd like to see that through to the end," O'Neal said. "You'd like to see it processed to see if there are any DNA hits."

Senator Cornyn's Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act (SAFER) would fund testing for all rape kits dating back to 1996 to get tested.

Texas Senator Wendy Davis says if that law does not pass, she will work to find funding in the state budget. Something that could not only help put a criminal behind bars, but may also help victims put the past behind them.

"Maybe it would put closure to what has happened," O'Neal said. "That they know that it's done and they did everything they could."

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