New Orleans Rape Kits Tested at MU Forensic Science Center

By: Carrie Cline Email
By: Carrie Cline Email

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Rape cases from another part of the country dating back to the 1980s could soon be solved, thanks to DNA analysis at Marshall University.

A backlog of more than 800 rape kits had piled up at the New Orleans Police Department, and Hurricane Katrina made matters even worse in 2005 after it flooded the forensic lab and many of the tests inside.

Local DNA analysts came to the rescue and, on Tuesday, they received more than a little thanks for their efforts.

“Y'all need to understand that the work that y'all did, people are going to go to prison for the rest of their life for crimes that really would have gone unsolved if it wouldn't have been for the work here,” New Orleans Police Department Commander Paul Noel said.

It was a match made in heaven after the perfect storm -- the New Orleans Police Department took a heavy blow from Hurricane Katrina.

“Our evidence room was flooded, as well," Noel said. "So, all of the evidence where these sexual assault kits were stored went under water."

In storage is a backlog of more than 800 rape kits awaiting processing from as far back as the 1980s. Marshall University's Forensic Science Center was handpicked for the job.

“They had to do the testing, very complicated testing. They managed to do over 830 kits in a year, which is phenomenal,” said Mark Nelson, manager of the National Institute of Justice Program.

“As an aside, most of these individuals who work in our crime lab are graduates of our own program,” said Dr. Terry Fenger, director of the Marshall University Forensic Science Center.

“We took each one and screened them to see if there was any blood or other bodily fluids on them,” DNA analyst Sarah Bowen said.

Bowen was one of the DNA analysts on the team and is also one of those Marshall University graduates. Even though she's been in the field for seven years, she admits this project was challenging.

“There was extensive water damage on some of these," Bowen said. "There was some mold, which is not conducive to DNA testing. But, we did get some results. So, the fact that they had those here and a lot of people would not have known what to do. So, for us to truck through did prove a lot to us and future projects."

“Make no mistake about it, Marshall University is laying the groundwork for the rest of the country,” said U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va.

Bowen reacted by saying, “To hear Rockefeller give us credit like that was big. Just to be recognized for what we’ve done is nice.”

It's a job well done that will mean volumes -- not only from New Orleans to Huntington -- but for the entire country and the future of forensic science.

The New Orleans Police Department expects to see many more arrests and convictions in the next two years as a result of the DNA tests and hits in the CODIS national database system.

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