NOPD still working to clear backlog of rape kits

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A representation of DNA. - CREATIVE COMMONS/ANDY LEPPARD
  • CREATIVE COMMONS/ANDY LEPPARD
  • A representation of DNA.

Despite an effort that began in 2012 to clear a backlog of hundreds of untested sexual assault kits, the New Orleans Police Department estimates it has 400 untested kits in its custody.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice found that NOPD had more than 800 untested rape kits (some held from the '80s and '90s), which contain fragile DNA evidence collected from victims that, when uploaded to the FBI's Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), can potentially match DNA profiles with other offenders across federal, state and local criminal justice agencies. NOPD ultimately made two dozen arrests from CODIS "hits" and made several convictions.

Last year, then-NOPD sex crimes cold case Det. Merrell Merricks told Gambit its backlog had been "virtually eliminated." But Merricks turned up in a November Office of Inspector General (OIG) report that alleged that Merricks and four other detectives botched dozens of sexual assault cases and failed to follow up 86 percent of them from 2011 to 2013. The report alleges that Merricks had reported that the state DNA lab found no evidence in one victim’s rape kit — but the OIG found that the kit was never submitted to the lab. It never moved from NOPD Central Evidence and Property.

Today, Commander Paul Noel — who helmed the backlog efforts and has been assigned to lead a new task force following the damning OIG report — told members of the New Orleans City Council that there are still "in excess of 400" untested rape kits. Along with the backlog of untested kits, the OIG report found that as of Oct. 3, there were 52 outstanding CODIS hits that detectives failed to follow up — even after the DNA was submitted for testing.

State Sen. J.P. Morrell passed a bill this year to make statewide criminal justice agencies report to the Louisiana State Police (LSP) how many untested rape kits are in their possession by Jan. 1, 2015. NOPD's spokesman Tyler Gamble told Gambit that NOPD will perform a breakdown of the untested kits in NOPD over the next several days, and assured that all evidence remains permanently with NOPD.

The New Orleans City Council's Criminal Justice Committee met this afternoon to discuss the changes NOPD superintendent Michael Harrison has made in the wake of the OIG report. This week, NOPD announced its plans to move 22 officers from courtrooms, public records and other positions to the streets to address the department's manpower shortage. Harrison also removed several officers from the District Attorney's office.

Harrison said his task force is investigating 271 cases outlined by the OIG and found 52 cases that "will take the most work to investigate and will make the biggest impact." Harrison said the task force also identified 49 cases that were not part of the OIG inquiry but were initiated by detectives this year. The task force members are conducting interviews, reviewing existing evidence, gathering new evidence, and bringing cases to the DA for possible prosecution. Harrison said officers also must receive written approval from a supervisor to classify sexual assault cases as a "signal 21," miscellaneous, which was assigned to many cases, according to the OIG.

"Six months from now when I ask you to report on where we are now... you're saying all these wonderful things were reinstituted in 2011, and yet we have a scathing IG report. What went wrong?" asked District A City Councilwoman Susan Guidry. "How does the task force expect things to be different once the spotlight is gone?"

"It’s obvious we backslid," Noel said, adding that Public Integrity Bureau chief Arlinda Westbrook's investigation is ongoing.

"Instead of transferring problems, we’re fixing problems," Harrison said.

District B City Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell asked whether any "heads have rolled" in the wake of the OIG report. Harrison assured that all officers involved have been reassigned to desk duties pending an internal investigation

"The outcome of that will lead to consequences," Harrison said.


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