Last week, the citizens of Harris County learned the story of an elderly woman who has been waiting for justice for over nine years. In August 2003, a man viciously raped this 77-year-old woman who was legally blind. Immediately following the brutal assault, she was taken to the hospital where medical personnel obtained evidence samples put together in a sexual assault kit. We now know that the Houston Police Department placed the kit in the property room at the police department and no testing was performed until the kit was found this summer, nine years after the vicious rape, robbery, and her identity was later stolen. When the kit was finally tested, the evidence was connected to Wesley Gordon, no stranger to the Harris County Criminal Justice Center or system.
In a sexual assault investigation, it is regular protocol for law enforcement to obtain a sexual assault kit from the survivor. Sexual abuse exists in different forms: known and unknown assailants, child and adult survivors. Some attackers look like Jerry Sandusky while others look like Gordon. Sex offenders are teachers, coaches, neighbors, and criminals and the abusive behavior is often repetitive.
Following the timely reporting of a sexual assault, survivors undergo a forensic examination at a hospital. This examination generally includes the collection of evidence that would assist law enforcement in identifying the perpetrator: blood, urine, hair samples, photo documentation, and clothing collection. Once the examination is completed, law enforcement is responsible for submitting the kit for scientific testing. All cases with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office are directly submitted to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (IFS) where there is no backlog on scientific testing of sexual assault kits. This stands in stark contrast to the Harris County Sheriff’s Department who immediately takes a rape kit to the crime lab for testing.
While the story of the nine-year-old, untested sexual assault kit is nauseating, this is just one of many examples of untested evidence at the Houston Police Department. In 2011, Irma Rios, Assistant Director of the Houston Police Department Crime Laboratory, said that about 16,000 rape kits sit in the Houston Police Department’s Property Room. Now, the department is reporting that 6,663 kits remain untested at the city. Regardless of the amount of untested sexual assault kits that remain untested at the city, it is imperative that all kits are immediately tested and that all usable evidence be entered into CODIS.
During a sexual assault investigation, a saliva sample is obtained from the suspect and compared with the evidence found in the kit. At the IFS, the suspect’s saliva sample is entered into CODIS, which allows law enforcement to connect the suspect in one case to other sexual assault investigations.
Sometimes, a sexual assault kit does not provide any usable evidence; but, other times, the evidence from the kit delivers the only link to the assailant. The criminal justice system owes it to survivors and our community to test every sexual assault kit and submit the usable evidence into CODIS. Additionally, the saliva samples from all suspects should be entered into CODIS, which would potentially solve assault cases and keep our community safer.
Mr. Gordon’s crime spree neither began nor ended in 2003. Prior to 2003, Gordon was sentenced to prison for Auto Theft and Burglary of a Vehicle. His criminal history also included Carrying a Weapon, Assault, Evading Detention, Possession of Marihuana, and Credit Card Abuse. Following the sexual assault in 2003, Gordon was charged with four other sexual assaults. One of the cases was no billed by a grand jury in January 2004 and the other three was dismissed in November 2004, April 2005, and November 2007. Were there sexual assault kits in these cases? If so, were they tested? When? Did law enforcement obtain saliva swabs from Gordon? If so, were they entered into CODIS?
This grave problem is not unique to Houston. In Detroit, a prosecutor is leading the effort to make certain that every kit is tested. Historically, the Houston Police Department submitted the kits to the property room and relied on the investigating officer to request testing at the crime laboratory. Once the evidence was finally tested, Gordon was almost immediately linked through evidence entered into CODIS by the IFS. Here, Pat Lykos has worked to express the importance of a regional, independent crime laboratory. This means that one laboratory, free from law enforcement control, would handle all evidence within Harris County. If this regional, independent crime laboratory were the IFS, there would be no backlog on sexual assault kit processing.
People who care about justice are hopeful that, after review of the Gordon case and others, Mike Anderson, the Republican nominee for Harris County District Attorney, will change his position in support of the City of Houston crime laboratory, whether it is under the umbrella of the Houston Police Department or the city itself. With any luck, Anderson will continue the great crime laboratory reform efforts of District Attorney Lykos. As former Houston Police Department Chief Bradford says, “Let’s do what we can to ensure that we don’t have two crime labs in Houston/Harris County, Texas.”
It is even possible that some of these untested sexual assault kits belong to cases where an individual is already accused and serving time. That was the case for Ricardo Rachell. The case was tried to a jury while the sexual assault kit remained untested at the Houston Police Department. Once the kit was tested, over five years after Rachell began serving his forty-year sentence, the results showed that the DNA matched another man – NOT Rachell.
After a number of investigative news reports about the quality of crime laboratory work at the Houston Police Department, the public crisis began. Michael Bromwich began a two-year, $5.3 million crime laboratory investigation in 2005. The investigation revealed a number of incompetent investigations and pure injustice. While Bromwich, appointed by Obama in 2010 as watchdog for offshore oil drilling, has given his approval for Houston Mayor Annise Parker’s crime laboratory proposal, I wonder if this latest example of incompetence would change his mind. It should.
We know that thousands of Texas rape kits have never been tested. These kits have been sitting on shelves in property rooms for decades. It is time to test the rape kits. New legislation passed by the Texas Legislature in 2011 requires all Texas police departments to submit rape kit evidence to crime laboratories within thirty days of collection. Senator John Cornyn is working to fund rape kit testing with federal funds.
The policy of allowing people from HPD to determine which rape kits are tested must end. A growing industry of studies to determine which rape kits to test has arisen. HPD has obtained grants for these types of studies creating a whole new industry of nonsense. It is very simple you test all the kits immediately. And, I will make a simple suggestion since this does come out of the HPD budget. HPD does not get one more dollar of overtime pay until every rape kit is tested. I am betting we will find more Wesley Gordon’s and quite possibly a few wrongfully convicted of rape. How many injustices will occur before the Houston Police Department is held accountable?
Wesley Gordon remains at large.