The Los Angeles Focus Groups
One of the goals of the Los Angeles sexual assault kit (SAK) study was to talk to boots-on-the-ground practitioners. Lead
researcher Joe Peterson and his California State University team held four focus groups. Here are some of the main points
made in the focus groups.
Law enforcement investigators
Although most of the detectives said that they had not yet found the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) valuable in linking
sexual assault cases, they cited the "Grim Sleeper" serial murders as a recent example of how DNA testing could link a decades-old
case to a single offender. The detectives said that as the CODIS database grows, it will become a more useful investigative
The detectives expressed no doubt that DNA testing in sexual assault cases can be valuable; however, they questioned the need
to test all SAKs. Some said they believed that the recently adopted policy of testing all kits was an overreaction, saying
that it removed their discretion. Some questioned the wisdom of testing all SAKs when time and human resources are limited,
especially in cases that are unlikely to result in prosecution. They also noted that the current test-all policy results in
some testing delays and, ultimately, amounts to poor case management when caseloads are already heavy.
The detectives discussed the importance of communicating with lab analysts. They noted that the SAK testing request form allows
them to direct the lab to specific pieces of evidence within the kit that, based on the history provided by the victim, could
most likely yield a DNA profile. However, some detectives conceded that, although the lab request form does not preclude additional
communication with analysts, they did not always speak with the analysts or only followed up on some cases.
The detectives also mentioned occasional difficulty understanding scientific terminology in lab reports and that better communication
with the analyst would help them better comprehend the results. They noted the importance of maintaining awareness of scientific
results and database inquiries and coordinating the sharing of information with victims.
Deputy district attorneys
The deputy district attorneys' belief mirrored the detectives' belief that DNA testing of an SAK has tremendous corroborative
value in meeting legal standards of evidence and supporting the victim's credibility. However, some prosecutors felt that
the length of time and cost of testing were prohibitive, and most said that testing is not strictly necessary if there is
other corroborative evidence, such as a suspect's admission or a victim's injuries. Note, however, that this does not address
the possible value of using CODIS to link the suspect to other past or future crimes.
They characterized the decision to test an SAK as "fact-driven," based on each case, adding that even though corroboration
of victim statements and victim credibility are key criteria in deciding whether to charge a suspect, it is not mandatory
to have DNA results in every case. The prosecutors agreed with the detectives that testing is probably not necessary if the
suspect's identity is not in question or if "consent" is the issue when both individuals are underage; however, they strongly
supported testing when it is key to establishing that a crime occurred or could possibly identify the suspect.
Some prosecutors said that policies mandating the testing of all SAKs were being driven by community perceptions, including
that the public generally regards not testing evidence in an alleged sexual assault as violating the victim's rights. Such expectations, they said, have been compounded
by TV shows that do not foster a full understanding of DNA testing. 'Juries expect it,' they said. 'They're going to wonder
why when the kit isn't tested.' The prosecutors noted that, when an SAK is not tested, they must offer an explanation during
voir dire or trial. It is vital, they added, to educate potential jurors on 'what science can and cannot do' because of expectations
formed by CSI-type dramas.
Some of the prosecutors suggested that lab delays were sometimes caused by detectives requesting that the lab test everything.
The researchers reported that this seemed contrary to the detectives' belief in their ability to direct the testing of evidence
and seemed to suggest that the prosecutors did not believe that detectives always knew what particular evidence within an
SAK would be most useful to a case.
The prosecutors said that lab analysts appreciated when they (the prosecutors) were knowledgeable about different types of
DNA analysis and the associated costs, particularly in light of the presence or absence of other evidence in a case.
Finally, the prosecutors agreed with the detectives that labs should establish testing priorities to determine which kits
should be tested and which evidence within an SAK should be tested.
The lab analysts generally felt that their mission — to help solve cases — was being complicated by their parent agencies'
new policy to test all SAKs. They regarded this as turning the lab's mission into uploading profiles into CODIS, regardless
of whether the suspect's profile in the case was already in CODIS. Although they acknowledged the long-term benefits that
could be gained from increasing the size of the CODIS database, they said that many of the hits resulting from testing all
SAKs in the property rooms were for defendants who had already been convicted. They also said that, to their knowledge, none
of the hits had led to a defendant being exonerated.
The analysts told the researchers that, if the detectives felt that testing all SAKs eliminated their discretion, they felt
this even more strongly. "We don't get to triage; we get told what to do," one said. "We just do what comes in the door,"
said another. The lab analysts agreed with the detectives and prosecutors that some cases were being tested unnecessarily,
noting that lab resources could be used more efficiently, specifically in stranger sexual assaults.
The analysts noted difficulty staying current with workload, saying that although new analysts were being hired, it was difficult
to train them quickly to begin working on cases. They said that the response to the untested SAKs in L.A. seemed more like
crisis management, adding that strategic planning was necessary to come up with long-term solutions.
Back to: Solving Sexual Assaults: Finding Answers Through Research.
Date Created: June 15, 2012