Hollywood police find untested rape kits in evidence room refrigerator

For years, 94 untested rape kits were left sitting in an evidence room refrigerator at the Hollywood Police Department.

The kits, some dating back to 2005, are now in the spotlight as the department's top brass reviews what went wrong and why.

The kits were discovered shortly after Frank Fernandez, who took over as chief in August, ordered an audit of the entire department, including the property and evidence room where the rape kits were found.


Hollywood Doggie Beach Pictures

Of the 162 rape kits discovered in the fridge, 94 were never taken to the Crime Lab at the Broward Sheriff's Office for testing, records show.

After being tagged as top priorities, 24 of the kits were sent to the lab and three are being tested right now, said Hollywood spokeswoman Raelin Storey.

"There are a small number of kits we believe should have been tested," Storey said. "We raced those to BSO right away."

Fernandez says the problem has since been corrected and won't happen again.

"I don't want people to think we have 94 rapists out there running around," Fernandez said. "This is an evolving process. We found the situation. It's been addressed. There is a new process in place and we are working closer with the lab."

Fernandez said no mistakes were made by staff because they followed the protocol that existed at the time.

Public Defender Howard Finkelstein says he plans to review the cases to see what it means for his office.

"What if the tests show they've got the wrong guy in jail?" Finkelstein said. "The evidence that might exonerate someone might never have been tested."

Prosecutor Neva Rainford-Smith, head of the State Attorney's Office sex crimes unit, says her office is reviewing the matter as well.

"When the state became aware of it, we asked for the total cases they had," she said Monday. "We looked at all 94 cases. I can say based on our investigation, there is no evidence suggesting that anyone got away with rape. The issue is still evolving and we are still investigating."

Rape kits allow for the collection of blood, hair and swabs from the mouth and genitals. Once analyzed at a crime lab, the evidence is entered into a national database to see if matches the DNA of known criminals.

Kellie Greene, a rape survivor and founder of the Orlando-based advocacy group Speaking Out About Rape Inc., says every kit should be processed.

"It's an intrusive process, especially after your body has been violated in such a violent way," Greene said. "You are providing intimate details of a sexual act to complete strangers. And then you're allowing them to invade your body to collect evidence to help find the person who did this to you. And whoever goes through this deserves to have the kit processed. You may see repeat offenders that show up in those kits."

Hollywood officials are still exploring why the 94 kits were never taken to the Sheriff's Office for processing, Storey said. Detectives are reviewing each case with the Crime Lab to make sure kits that meet the criteria are analyzed.

Storey gave the following reasons why some kits might not be tested: the victims may have recanted their statement or changed their mind about cooperating with police and prosecutors; the forensic exam might have been unable to retrieve testable DNA; or the police may have already made an arrest.

Dr. Larry Kobilinsky, a professor of forensic science at New York's John Jay College, says staffing woes and the high costs of processing rape kits have led to backlogs at police departments across the country.

"There has to be a process so you know they're tested in a reasonable time frame. Not eight years. That's inexcusable," he said.

If the lab does not process a rape kit, there should be a paper trail explaining why, Kobilinsky said.

The Hollywood Police Department has a new process in place to track rape cases, Storey said. In addition, rape kits submitted to the evidence room will be taken to the Crime Lab by the next work day.

Commissioner Patricia Asseff credits the chief with finding the problem and fixing it.

"He is really putting everything under scrutiny," she said. "He's doing everything he can to know what's going on internally within our police department. And I'm sure that in the future this will not happen again."

sbryan@tribune.com or 954-356-4554