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Why Police “Couldn't or Wouldn't” Submit Sexual Assault Kits for Forensic DNA Testing: A Focal Concerns Theory Analysis of Untested Rape Kits

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024

Abstract

In jurisdictions throughout United States, thousands of sexual assault kits (SAKs) (also termed “rape kits”) have not been submitted by the police for forensic DNA testing. DNA evidence may be helpful to sexual assault investigations and prosecutions by identifying offenders, revealing serial offenders through DNA matches across cases, and exonerating those who have been wrongly accused, so it is important to understand why police are not utilizing this evidence. In this study, we applied focal concerns theory to understand discretionary practices in rape kit testing. We conducted a three-year ethnography in one city that had large numbers of untested SAKs—Detroit, Michigan—to understand why thousands of SAKs collected between 1980 and 2009 were never submitted by the police for forensic DNA testing. Drawing upon observational, interview, and archival data, we found that while practical concerns regarding resources available for forensic analysis were clearly a factor, as Detroit did not have the funding or staffing to test all SAKs and investigate all reported rapes, focal concerns regarding victim credibility and victim cooperation were more influential in explaining why rape kits were not tested. Implications for the criminal justice system response to sexual assault and rape kit testing legislation are examined.

Type
Articles
Copyright
© 2018 Law and Society Association.

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Footnotes

The action research project described in this paper was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Justice (2011-DN-BX-0001). The opinions or points of view expressed in this document are solely those of the authors and do not reflect the official positions of any participating organization or the U.S. Department of Justice. The authors thank the members of the action research project and academic colleagues who provided feedback on prior drafts of this manuscript. We also thank Rachael Goodman-Williams for her assistance with the revisions of this paper.

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