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Grady releasing 1,000 rape kits withheld from law enforcement

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Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Willoughby Mariano began investigating Grady Memorial Hospital this spring, when the hospital confirmed it had locked away DNA and other evidence for as many as 1,500 rape victims. She investigated further when interviews with hospital officials, law enforcement and experts revealed that Grady was giving incorrect or conflicting information. In June, the AJC revealed that Grady routinely failed to report possible sexual assaults to law enforcement despite state requirements, and withheld rape kits from police when victims wanted them to be released.

The state’s largest public hospital is releasing to law enforcement more than 1,000 packages of sex crime evidence that have been locked away in file cabinets since 2000, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

An AJC investigation in June found that 1,500 of these rape kits had piled up at Grady Memorial Hospital, in part because it failed to report many of these crimes to police. Medical staff at Grady, which is home to the sole rape crisis center for Fulton County’s nearly 1 million residents, collected samples of bodily fluids, hair and other evidence through special forensic exams that can be so invasive that they cause emotional trauma. Yet the kits were never tested for DNA, even when victims requested the evidence be shared with police.

Officials at the taxpayer-supported hospital initially acknowledged that 130 of these kits belonged to victims who wanted them sent to police. The new number Grady provided to the AJC is nearly eight times that amount. A written statement Grady officials sent to the AJC did not give a reason for the abrupt and steep increase, clarify why they are not sending some 500 kits that remain in storage, or say if police had investigated any of these cases. Hospital spokeswoman Lindsay Caulfield declined to make hospital officials available for questioning.

“Grady and law enforcement have committed to developing new strategies to harmoniz patient privacy rights with law enforcement’s vital mission to protect crime victims,” Grady’s statement said.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who helped arrange for transfer of the kits to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and said in a separate written statement that “all parties are actively working toward a final resolution of the remaining rape kits.” He was not available for comment before deadline.

Grady’s decision to turn the rape kits over to authorities, while welcome news to victims’ rights advocates, is placing strain on resources at the GBI, which manages the state’s forensic labs.

GBI lacks manpower and funding to handle the additional workload, said Deputy Director George Herrin, who runs the agency’s forensic lab system. There are so many Grady kits that it can only accept 100 of them per week.

“We’re completely swamped,” said Herrin. A single kit can cost $600 to $1,000 to analyze, and the additional kits from Grady could increase the current four-month wait for DNA results. This year, GBI is already coping with a 20 percent increase statewide in law enforcement requests for forensic testing.

Grady declined requests to release the kits or make them available to an outside auditor for more than a decade. They said patients endured what can be a six-hour forensic exam where their wounds are photographed and body cavities are swabbed, but told Grady they did not want a police investigation. If a victim signed a form consenting to the kit’s release, but said verbally they did not wish to cooperate with law enforcement, Grady filed the kit away because federal privacy regulations barred their release, hospital attorney Timothy Jefferson said.

But those same federal rules permit hospitals to hand evidence to police if required by state law; Georgia law mandates that hospitals report injuries that may be tied to a crime and disclose information that can help an investigation.

The release of the kits is only the first step in what could be a years-long process. Law enforcement has yet to decide how — or if — to proceed with investigations once testing takes place. Opening them would require contacting victims, which could inflict additional emotional trauma on them.

Regardless, Georgia Innocence Project Executive Director Aimee Maxwell, who offered to audit Grady’s kits more than a decade ago, is glad to see the evidence is finally in the hands of law enforcement.

“I think we’re going to get some answers, and I think it’s great,” Maxwell said. “Wouldn’t it have been great if it happened 15 years ago?”

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