Contamination at an out-of-state laboratory that tests rape kits has delayed progress on thousands of backlogged kits in Kentucky.
Staff at Kentucky State Police’s central forensic laboratory in Frankfort caught the error in late May as part of their normal data review process.
Lab scientists noticed the same suspect, a black man in Tennessee, had matched in two different cases when entered into a national DNA database — not immediately an issue, because it could suggest a serial offender.
But in one of those cases sent for testing, the man police suspected of committing the rape was white.
“It shot up some red flags,” said Laura Sudkamp, director of KSP’s Forensic Laboratory System.
Lab personnel double-checked with those investigating the case, who confirmed the woman reported a white man assaulted her.
Kentucky was soon on the phone with the Utah-based lab. Three weeks later, four KSP lab biologists flew to Sorenson Forensics to audit the lab and figure out how the contamination could have happened.
Sudkamp said it appears the lab processed a large DNA sample alongside a small sample, leading to cross-contamination.
Lab employees in Kentucky then stopped entering DNA profiles into the Combined DNA Index System, a national DNA database through which “hits” can be made. The halt meant no new leads for police, no new cases for prosecutors and delayed answers for victims.
“We were seeing a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sudkamp said about the backlog of rape kits in Kentucky. “We had to slam the brakes.”
Since 2016, Kentucky has sent its backlogged rape kits for testing in monthly batches to the Utah lab, allowing the Kentucky lab to keep up with current demand.
The state sent about 4,600 kits, some more than 40 years old, for testing and has received data back on all of them. Frankfort lab staff members were in the process of reviewing the vendor lab’s results when the contamination issue hit.
News of the delay was particularly disheartening for Eileen Recktenwald, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs.
“Just the idea of all the staff time that’s going to take, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “And it’s justice delayed, again.”
As of now, the Kentucky lab has identified only one other pair of cases that was contaminated, for a total of four affected cases, Sudkamp said.
But eliminating any doubt, any chance that the lab evidence could be tainted, meant a time-consuming review that’s still ongoing.
Members of her team have spent hundreds of hours going back and verifying the data from the Utah lab, a process expected to wrap in late January or February.
Sudkamp contacted prosecutors and police, warning them of the issue and to let her know if they were planning on moving forward with an arrest so she could make sure there were no issues with the DNA evidence.
There’s no indication any cases that have already made their way to court — fewer than 10 — were impacted, Sudkamp said.
“They had an issue. We found it. And that’s a testimony to our quality review process,” Sudkamp said. “Everything we’re doing is to make the laboratory confident in the results we’re giving, making sure no one is falsely accused.”
Sorenson is one of the main private labs handling the testing of old sexual assault kits for a number of jurisdictions across the country.
Camilla Green, the company’s vice president of customer solutions, said in an email that a review of Kentucky’s cases turned up no additional affected cases.
Speaking about the contamination issue at an October meeting of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, Sorenson employee Denise Anderson said six contamination incidents, including the two pairs of Kentucky cases, had been discovered by the company as it conducted an internal investigation.
“Having a failure like this is big, and we want to make sure that we are putting what we need to put in place to get back on track,” she said, according to a video of the hearing.
Anderson spoke of new operating procedures and a new internal database with stronger features to better catch errors.
She also acknowledged the company’s caseload had rapidly grown, by about 2.5 times, creating extra pressures.
A woman at the Texas meeting commented that her laboratory had a problem with Sorenson’s casework in 2013 and that the cause given then was a ramp-up of workload.
“We need to use history to make sure that we don’t continue to do that, especially as more and more labs are sending these backlogged kits,” she said. “And we know that there’s thousands of them that need to get tested and there’s going to be more projects like this.”
“I think they took on too many, and they were pushing through too many,” Sudkamp said of the vendor lab. “I think it just caught up with them.”
Kentucky’s kits can be divided into two broad categories: those that have never been submitted for testing and those that have been tested with outdated techniques or were submitted for testing but then were recalled.
The first round of kit testing, for the previously unsubmitted kits, was funded through a $1.9 million grant from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office awarded to KSP. A second wave of kits was tested with part of the nearly $3 million grant from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative awarded to the Kentucky attorney general’s office.
Carey Aldridge, who coordinates the efforts at the attorney general’s office, said because the second grant encompasses more than just kit testing, progress could be made on other fronts as the testing side slowed.
Indeed, the office was able to secure an August indictment, stemming from the testing of a first-wave kit that had already been fully processed by the lab before the contamination issue was discovered.
And while moving past the contamination issue will be a welcome development, Aldridge said the Frankfort lab is taking its time to ensure the forensic results are solid for police, prosecutors and victims.
“I think it will slow down the process a little bit,” she said, “but I think in the end it’s absolutely worth it.”