The Hamilton County coroner announced Wednesday her crime lab will no longer process rape kits from Cincinnati because of a backlog of work. The city manager said it will causes delays, but the coroner said it will only speed things up.
According to our media partners at the Cincinnati Enquirer, in a letter to the CPD dated July 6, Coroner Lakshmi Kode Sammarco said she was placing a moratorium on rape kit testing would last at least through the end of the year.
“The backlog of cases with our DNA section continues to grow, and as such we have been forced to look for a way to triage the cases that are submitted to the laboratory,” Sammarco wrote in the letter.
Seventy-four unprocessed kits were sent back to the Cincinnati Police Department.
In a memo to City Council, City Manager Harry Black said the coroner's decision was made without advance notice.
“For years, the City has relied on the Hamilton County crime lab to perform this function so vital to solving rape cases,” Black wrote. "CPD will now send these kits to the State of Ohio for processing through their lab. Significant delays are expected as a result of this sudden and unexpected disruption."
However, Sammarco told The Enquirer she feels Black's memo is misleading. She said the entire reason for her decision was to speed up processing of the kits and she had spoken to CPD, the state Bureau of Criminal Investigations and the prosecutor's office prior writing the letter.
She said her DNA section, made up of four full-time technicians, has a backlog of 556 cases, and each technician can only work on one case at a time. She explained that staffing has been a concern and that it took nearly two years for the county to approve hiring one more DNA technician who was brought on this spring.
There is an open position in the lab after someone unexpectedly left this spring. But beyond that, Sammarco said her current lab does not have the space to accommodate any additional staff.
"We had to look at how can we make the biggest impact with one single move, and that was to [move] the largest category of cases," Sammarco said.
Hamilton County Commissioner Chris Monzel said he found the news disturbing and wasn't aware of an issue at the lab before Wednesday.
He said Sammarco has fought to keep testing in her lab when the idea of shipping things out was floated in county government.
“We could have saved a lot of money and time if we had known this awhile," Monzel said.
He suggested the lab could consider running additional shifts to make up for the lack of space and said if more staff if need it should be brought before the commissioners.
"This is something that is really important, but we’d have to make some cuts to pick up extra bodies if we need them," he said.
Sammarco said it would have taken her lab at least four months to process all of the evidence. The current turnaround time for BCI in London, Ohio where CPD's rape kits will now be processed is 21 to 25 days. Chief Eliot Isaac said BCI informed him most requests would be processed within two weeks.
Mayor John Cranley released a statement Wednesday supporting the coroner and her position that the change will speed things up.
"The City will work diligently to make sure these rape kits are transferred without incident and this change does not compromise the rights of victims to obtain justice,” Cranley said.
Some of the 74 unprocessed kits dating from April, May and June have already been submitted to BCI. Those kits are expected to be completed by Aug. 11. Now 44 kits remain in the hands of CPD because BCI asked that only 15 rape kits a week be delivered from the backlog.
CPD investigators must hand-deliver that evidence to the state lab, about 88 miles away.
"We don't want to be the cause of the delay in somebody getting answers and justice prevailing," Sammarco said. "These cases had a better chance of getting process more quickly at BCI."
BCI will process these kits at no charge as they do for agencies across the state. The agency processes an average of 163 newly submitted rape kits a month for agencies across the state, said Jill Del Greco, spokeswoman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office, which oversees the agency.
Attorney General Mike DeWine said BCI does a "very good job" processing rape kits since making it a priority to test a massive stockpile of old untested kit from all over the state in 2011.
“We spent a lot of money on the infrastructure to process rape kits,” DeWine said explaining some of the work is performed by robots. "If there’s an emergency, we will turn a case around in 48 hours."
He said BCI is happy to do rape kit testing for the coroner's office for as long as it is needed.
Sammarco's decision comes in the midst of a $50 million to $60 million project to replace the overcrowded crime lab with a new one in Blue Ash. Hamilton County commissioners have already approved a capital budget that includes spending on the new facility, and the land is under contract.
"We realize we're inconveniencing one of our law enforcement partners, but it's one jurisdiction in the county," Sammarco said.
Sammarco emphasized this decision is only temporary.
"We intend to get that backlog whittled down to nothing, but we need space, we need people and we need to get caught up," she said.