Rape kit (Forensic Science)
The standardization of approach provided by the rape kit—alternatively known as the sexual assault evidence kit or sexual assault forensic evidence (SAFE) kit—is thought to limit further physical and psychological trauma to the complainant (victim) by ensuring consistency of treatment. This evidence is gathered only after consent has been obtained from the complainant, who can give consent to just part of the examination and can withdraw consent at any time during the examination. Rape kit evidence can be gathered if the complainant (who may be male or female) consents to the examination but does not want to make a report to the police at that time, as the evidence can be stored for use in the future. A number of varieties of rape kits have been developed, but the kind most commonly used in the United States is known as the Vitullo kit; it was developed by former Chicago police sergeant Louis R. Vitullo, who headed the Chicago Police Department’s crime laboratory in the 1970’s. The evidence gathered using a rape kit may help police to identify a suspect and may be used in court during any subsequent trial.
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Conduct of the Examination and Contents of the Kit (Forensic Science)
The examination is conducted by a medical professional, typically a doctor or nurse, who may or may not have specialized knowledge or experience in working with sexual assault victims. In many U.S. states, rape kit exams are conducted by specially trained professionals who are part of sexual assault forensic examiner (SAFE) or sexual assault nurse examiner (SANE) programs. To secure the chain of custody after the examination is completed, the medical professional seals the rape kit in a box, which is then kept in a secure place until it is given to the police to be sent to the crime laboratory for analysis.
The rape kit typically contains instructions and forms, diagrams and checklists, slides, swabs, sterile urine collection containers, sterile sample containers, and self-sealing envelopes, bags, and labels. It is important that such materials are not “lick-sealed,” as such cross-contamination would jeopardize the integrity of the evidence. For the same reason, all sample swabs and slides must be dry before they are placed in sterile containers.
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How the Kit Is Used in the Examination (Forensic Science)
Prior to using the rape kit, the examiner collects a health history from the complainant; if relevant, a gynecological history is taken, including the date of last menstruation, type of usual contraception used, and last consensual sexual contact. It is important to the chain of evidence that the complainant is at no point left alone in the room once the examination has started, and neither the complainant nor anyone accompanying the complainant is allowed to handle the evidence. If the complainant wants to urinate or defecate prior to the examination, this material is gathered as part of the evidence, and the complainant is cautioned not to wipe the area until after the examination. The complainant is also advised not to remove any menstrual protection or contraceptive device from the body.
The complainant is asked to undress over a sheet of paper to minimize any loss of trace evidence (the paper is later examined for evidence that may have fallen from the complainant’s clothing or body). The examiner then uses the rape kit to collect blood, semen, and other body fluid samples from the genitals, rectum, and mouth. The examiner combs the complainant’s head and pubic area to collect samples of the complainant’s hair and to look for any hairs or loose debris left by the perpetrator. Some hairs may be plucked from these sites. The examiner scrapes under the complainant’s fingernails to collect...
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Limitations of the Use of Rape Kits (Forensic Science)
Some physical evidence in sexual assault cases must be collected within seventy-two hours of the attack. In many U.S. jurisdictions, if an attack occurred more than ninety-six hours prior to the examination, a rape kit is not deemed necessary. Despite the presumed scientific objectivity of the rape kit protocol, discretionary practices exist across the United States.
In some states, a complainant in a sexual assault case has the right to ask for the examination to be conducted by someone of the same gender as the complainant. The insufficient numbers of female medical personnel available in some areas may prevent some female complainants from being seen by female examiners in a timely manner. Another limitation of rape kit examinations is that the medical professional does not typically check for pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections; checks for these may need to be done at a later stage.
A rape kit can only help to determine if sexual contact has been made between certain people. It cannot provide evidence of consent or of mens rea (guilty mind). Severe injuries might suggest forced intercourse, but this cannot be proved by forensic evidence. Although rape kit evidence cannot prove guilt, it can exclude persons from suspicion; DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) evidence gathered through the use of rapes kit has been used to clear innocent people.
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Further Reading (Forensic Science)
Campbell, Rebecca, Debra Patterson, and Lauren F. Lichty. “The Effectiveness of Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE) Programs: A Review of Psychological, Medical, Legal, and Community Outcomes.” Trauma, Violence, and Abuse 6, no. 4 (2005): 313-329. Scholarly article describes the rape kit collection process in detail.
Carney, Thomas P. Practical Investigation of Sex Crimes: A Strategic and Operational Approach. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2003. A former commanding officer of the Manhattan Special Victims Squad presents case histories to illustrate the skills needed to investigate sex crimes effectively.
Hazelwood, Robert R., and Ann W. Burgess, eds. Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation: A Multidisciplinary Approach. 3d ed. Boca Raton, Fla.: CRC Press, 2001. Describes the roles of the police investigator, the medical examiner, the forensic scientist, the crisis counselor, and the prosecutor in crimes involving rape.
LeBeau, Marc A., and Ashraf Mozayani, eds. Drug-Facilitated Sexual Assault: A Forensic Handbook. New York: Academic Press, 2001. Collection of essays provides extensive information on this complex area of investigation and highlights the key issues surrounding evidence gathering.
Littel, Kristin. Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner Programs: Improving the Community Response to Sexual Assault Victims. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice,...
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Rape Kit (World of Forensic Science)
A rape kit, also known as a sexual assault evidence kit (SAEK), is a collection of biological evidence taken from a rape or sexual abuse victim after an assault. The kit, which varies by state and situation, aids in arresting and convicting a suspect. It should be collected within 72 hours of the attack, with complete retrieval often requiring up to four hours. The victim's informed consent is necessary for a rape kit to be used.
Once the rape kit is opened, the "chain of evidence" must be maintained. Evidence cannot be left unattended. The recommended contents of a rape kit typically include: instructions and check-off sheet; large paper sheet; filter paper; small paper bags; cotton-tipped swabs; small cardboard boxes; comb; wooden splints; envelopes; red-topped and purple-topped tubes for blood sample collection; history and physical documentation forms; patient discharge information form; patient's clothing; fingernail scrapings, broken fingernail pieces; hair strands; oral swabbing; pubic hair; vaginal swabbing; vaginal washings; cervical smear; rectal swabbing; blood samples; and microscope slides.
To begin the process of collection, a nurse individually bags each article of the victim's clothing to be submitted to the investigating police officer or directly to the crime laboratory. Items of clothing are placed in paper bags, not plastic bags, as plastic may promote bacterial growth on blood or semen stains. Clothing can be collected up to one month after the assault, provided the items have not been laundered.
The pubic hair region is combed to recover any foreign hair that may have been deposited by the assailant. The comb is then placed in an envelope that is sealed and initialed. The patient is examined for visible blood or seminal stains. If the nurse observes such stains, a gauze pad is moistened, the stain is collected on the pad, the pad is allowed to air dry, and then it is placed in one of the plastic bags. The area swabbed is documented. Ten to fifteen pubic hair control samples are taken from the victim. A representative hair sample is also obtained, preferably pulled and not cut from the victim.
A set of swabs is used to prepare two vaginal and cervical smears on the microscopic slides. The speculum used to examine the cervix should be lubricated only with saline, since K-Y jelly may be spermicidal and may interfere with wet mount procedures and forensic evaluation. The slides are sprayed with a cytological fixative and allowed to air dry for three to five minutes before being labeled.
The condition of the hymen and any perineal trauma are noted. If a Wood's lamp (an ultraviolet light lamp) is available, the patient's thighs are examined for fluorescing semen stains (urine and pus may also fluoresce) and any positive areas swabbed. If genital anal contact is indicated, anal smears for sperm are collected. Lastly, a blood sample needs to be obtained from the victim for later typing.
If any blood, hair, or foreign tissue is observed on the fingernails, the nurse will scrape under the nails with the wooden splints over a clean white paper. If blood is present, the nurse will clip the nails. Oral samples are obtained by swabbing the mouth twice. Sperm have been recovered from the oral cavity up to six hours after an assault, even if the teeth were brushed or mouthwash was used. A second saliva sample is collected on the filter paper disk to determine characteristics (such as secretor status) of the victim.
Throughout the examination, the person is observed for signs of trauma outside of the genital region. The most commonly injured extragenital areas are the mouth, throat, wrist, arms, breasts, and thighs. The presence, size, and location of bruises, lacerations, bite marks, and scratches are documented. If the patient consents, the areas of trauma are photographed. If consent is refused, diagrams are used to accurately portray the physical condition of the victim.
Those responsible for collecting a rape kit are trained to recognize the psychological impact of the examination. Although the examination experience itself is generally not physically painful, it can be experienced by victims as psychologically humiliating. For many rape victims, the collection of a rape kit can be experienced as a second source of victimization.
The collection of a rape kit does not mean that the kit will be processed. Historically, many states have not possessed the financing to process every rape kit that was turned into evidence. In response, some states have changed their statute of limitations for rape prosecution, allowing for longer statutes when DNA evidence is uncovered.
SEE ALSO Blood; Bloodstain evidence; Body marks; DNA databanks; DNA typing systems; Fibers; Fluorescence; Hair analysis; Physical evidence; Saliva.