DNA backlog reveals past problems with NOPD and rape cases

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by Katie Moore / Eyewitness News

wwltv.com

Posted on January 20, 2011 at 12:11 AM

NEW ORLEANS -- The number of rapes in New Orleans climbed more than 50 percent in 2010, according to police, not because the number of attacks increased, but because they changed the way rapes are classified.

It's one of many ways NOPD Superintendent Ronal Serpas has said he is changing the way his cops investigate rapes, after years of victims saying the NOPD didn't take the crime seriously.

36-year-old Jimmie Spratt now sits in Orleans Parish Prison. According to investigators, Spratt allegedly raped three women in New Orleans in 1994.

“If we had done our jobs when the case had originally occurred, we might have been to save some victims from a sexual assault sometime down the road,” said Orleans Parish District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro.

It took 10 years and four more rapes in Memphis for New Orleans police to identify Spratt as a suspect. Nurses recovered DNA from the New Orleans victims after their attacks, but it appears that DNA didn't get entered into the national DNA database, called COTIS, until 2005. According to Cannizzaro’s office, Spratt was in prison in Tennessee for the four aggravated rapes in Memphis, and was scheduled to be released this year. But it took until two months ago for his alleged New Orleans victims to get a chance at justice.

“This is stuff probably a year ago no one would even talk about. We're talking about it now, because we want the public to have confidence in us,” said the NOPD commander of the Sex Crimes Unit, Lt. Paul Noel.

He took over the unit last June and said he found letters from the State Police outlining nearly 400 matches on cold cases that had never been acted on, including the three rapes that matched Jimmie Spratt.

“We went through, I believe, 138 COTIS cases in six months,” Noel said about progress made so far.

Serpas found 700 more rape kits that had never been tested or opened. Some dated back to the early '90s. That's 1,100 rape cases that may never have been solved.

“Someone dropped the ball,” Cannizzaro said.

Many of the untested rape kits were in the basement of Police Headquarters at the time of Hurricane Katrina, which means, many of those rape kits will be unusable.

“It's best if these swabs are refrigerated. They don't have to be refrigerated, but it's better if they're refrigerated. After Katrina, we didn't have power for a while. So, we don't really know what the effects of that is,” Noel said.

That's where the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab and Marshall University come in.

“State police would facilitate those cases being shipped to Marshall. Marshall works them. State Police works on getting those cases back into COTIS so that the investigative leads can be generated,” said Cptn. Layne Barnum, commander of the Louisiana State Police Crime Lab.

The National Institute of Justice is funding the tests. Ironically, in 2009, the State Police Crime Lab had its own backlog of 30,000 DNA samples that hadn't been entered into the COTIS system, and more than 14,000 cases that needed forensic tests, including ballistic tests, fingerprint analysis and DNA. Their backlog didn't include the 700 from the NOPD.

Thanks to increased staffing and funding from the state, Barnum said they've cut the state’s forensic backlog to 5,000 cases, and DNA entry into the COTIS system is now being done in real-time.

They're just beginning to tackle the NOPD backlog of untested cases.

“The plan is to do 60 cases a month,” Barnum said.

“We're gonna put a lot of people in jail this year,” said Noel.

It has Cannizzaro bracing for a big influx of rape cases at Orleans Parish Criminal District Court.

“It's estimated that there could be double digit numbers of children, some estimates as high as 50 children that have been the victims of sexual assaults where the cases have just not been worked,” Cannizzaro said.

Not every DNA match points to the perpetrator, which is why getting through those 1,100 cases is expected to take more than a year.

“Katrina brought a whole new dynamic to this. We have cases that even in 2005, even before Katrina, [the victim] doesn't live in the city anymore. We have to track them down,” Noel said.

The Sex Crimes Commander said they're getting new DNA hits from the State Police every day.

“We're not trying to hide anything. We're really putting it out there. So, we want the public to have confidence in us,” he said.

The NOPD now has a relationship with the state crime lab to get new DNA samples tested. According to Noel, every two weeks, the NOPD takes new sexual assault kits to Baton Rouge to make sure another backlog isn't created as they work through the old cases.

The cooperation is expected to continue until New Orleans can rebuild its Crime Lab that was flooded and destroyed during Katrina. Serpas has committed to hiring two DNA experts to be stationed at the state crime lab to work solely on New Orleans cases, but according to State Police, they have not yet been hired.

 

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