Put Rape Evidence to Work

From Newsday’s Opinion section

In 1993, Natasha Alexenko was brutally raped in the stairwell of her Manhattan apartment building. Despite the emotional and physical trauma, Alexenko, then a 20-year-old college student, immediately reported the crime in hopes that her attacker would be found.

A physical exam was an unfortunate necessity; rape charges are difficult to prosecute without the evidence garnered from this process. But that doesn’t diminish its traumatic nature.

“My body was a crime scene,” explains Alexenko, who now lives on Long Island. Her story is featured in the documentary “Sex Crimes Unit,” which premieres this Monday on HBO. Just hours after her assault, Alexenko was subjected to what she described as “an intrusive gynecological exam.”

You’d expect that, after a victim puts herself through this procedure, every effort would be made to identify her attacker. But for nearly 10 years, that collection of physical evidence, known as a rape kit, sat on a shelf at the New York City Police Department property clerk’s office.

In 2003, the Manhattan district attorney began testing rape kits of victims whose cases were soon to expire due to a 10-year-statute of limitations that, thankfully, no longer exists in New York State. Although no DNA match was found in the database for Alexenko’s kit, the prosecutors employed a brilliant strategy to prevent the case from heading toward the unsolved and too-late-to-prosecute files: They used the DNA to create a John Doe indictment, so if a suspect were ever identified, the case could still be prosecuted. It served to stop the statute clock.

Fast forward to 2007. A man named Victor Rondon was arrested in Las Vegas on a minor charge. When he was extradited to New York for a parole violation, a detective took a cheek swab and entered it into the DNA database. It was a hit with Alexenko’s kit.

Nearly 15 years after her rape, Alexenko faced her attacker in court. Her testimony — supported by the DNA evidence — put him away until at least 2057.

Alexenko’s case reveals a dirty little secret in the criminal justice system — without a suspect, rape kits are routinely left untested throughout the country. The exact number is unknown, but some advocacy groups estimate that tens of thousands of these kits sit unopened and collecting dust in police evidence rooms and crime labs.

Why the backlog? Money. Testing a kit — gathering DNA from the evidence and running it against a national database — can cost municipalities up to $1,500. Coordination among departments is also an issue, with a National Institute of Justice study citing an “antiquated process” of tracking kits.

Alexenko has taken up the cause, founding the nonprofit Natasha’s Justice Project, based in West Sayville. Its aim: to compel law enforcement agencies — through legislation, education and advocacy — to test rape kits within 60 days, and to clear any backlog. Manhattan has already enacted such a law.

Unfortunately, the issue doesn’t appear to be high on the priority list in many municipalities. Natasha’s Justice Project had aimed to begin its advocacy work in Suffolk County, making it a model for the rest of the nation. First, volunteers needed to determine if there was any backlog of the kits. But after more than month of outreach to numerous county representatives, they still had no definite answer.

When I tried, mentioning that I was writing this column, it took less than 24 hours to learn that Suffolk has no backlog, according to the county medical examiner’s office. That’s great news. But Alexenko should have been able to get that information without a month of effort.

Alexenko’s case is proof that rapists can and will be identified and prosecuted based on evidence from these kits. It’s time to ensure that they aren’t left languishing on lab shelves across the state and country.