District Attorney Summer Stephan at Golden Hall on June 4.
District Attorney Summer Stephan, at downtown’s Golden Hall, was an easy winner in June election. Photo by Chris Stone

In late April, at the height of her successful campaign for district attorney, interim DA Summer Stephan announced she would spend $1 million to test 1,000 rape kits.

“Reducing the countywide inventory of untested sexual assault kits has been a top priority,” a spokesman for her office said last week.

So how’s it going?

By the end of this week, only 200 kits will have been tested by Bode Cellmark Forensics, a private lab in Virginia, said a spokesman for LabCorp, Bode’s corporate parent.

“The plan is on track to have the testing completed by summer 2019,” the spokesman, Donald R. Von Hagen, said Thursday.

Steve Walker, a spokesman for the DA’s office, said last week that Bode had been paid $105,115 as of early August.

Shipping kits to the private lab is a process that happens in chunks, he said. The lab had been sent 525 kits as of Aug. 1.

“We started with [the San Diego County Sheriff’s office],” Walker said. “They have now sent in all [503 of] their kits. We are now moving to other agencies” — eight police departments in the county excluding San Diego’s.

Walker said he expected Bode would have all 1,000 kits by the end of this year.

That isn’t fast enough for Geneviéve Jones-Wright, the deputy public defender and Democrat who lost to Republican Stephan in June by 25 percentage points.

Bode boasts high-volume casework and “fast results to end backlogs,” she said, but “San Diego County seems to have no real results at this stage in the process.”

Walker told Times of San Diego that he couldn’t divulge how many Bode results have led to arrests or convictions, citing “the umbrella of ongoing/open investigation(s).”

“But obviously, if testing results in a criminal case being filed, we would be glad to let you know,” he said.

Jones-Wright doesn’t buy that either.

“There is no rhyme or reason the DA’s Office can’t give numbers … except to hide the ball,” she said. “Numbers don’t influence or impact ongoing investigations.”

She said the DA’s lack of response shows a disregard for accountability and transparency.

Jones-Wright also questioned why San Diego kits have to be shipped to Virginia, “when we have labs closer and in our state.” She said the cost of shipping would eat into the $1 million set aside for testing rape kits.

“This is money that could be used to actually get rid of the backlog,” she said via email. “Why was this lab selected as opposed to the other options? Were there bids (these are public funds)?”

Walker said the District Attorney’s Office retained Bode in part because of its extensive experience testing SART kits nationwide as well as its previous experience testing San Diego County Sheriff’s Department kits.

He said no bidding process was required.

Also critical of Stephan is retired sheriff’s Cmdr. Dave Myers, who lost a June bid to unseat Sheriff Bill Gore.

“The DA’s answers [to Times questions] presumes ‘trust us,’ we are doing what we said and we can’t tell you the results,” Myers said.

He said Walker’s responses bring up only more questions.

“The sheriff runs the regional crime lab that COULD test all sexual assault kits,” Myers said. “Does the independent lab the DA claims kits are sent to do any other work for DA office? How do we know dollar amount quoted … as expenses for tested kits all went to actual testing? How much does it cost to test one kit?”

In a San Diego Union-Tribune story about Stephan’s April announcement, Stephan is quoted as saying the sheriff’s crime lab was already “operating at maximum capacities.”

Standing with Stephan at the April news conference was Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which has a national program called End the Backlog.

Knecht shares the frustration on testing speed, but said in a phone interview that Bode’s turnaround time is not surprising.

“The labs are really inundated with these kits from all over the country,” she said, also rejecting the distance critique.

“It doesn’t matter if the lab is in Timbuktu,” she said. “The time it takes to send the kit back and forth isn’t the issue. The issue is what capacity the private lab has.”

Of greater current concern to Knecht are the fates of two Sacramento bills — including one, SB 1149, that would mandate testing of all new rape kits. (The other, AB 3318, would require a statewide audit of all untested rape kits.)

Democratic state Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino is the author of the mandatory testing bill (which Stephan supports), and Sergio Reyes, her spokesman, said Leyva appreciates efforts by local district attorneys to “prioritize the testing of rape kits.”

“Senator Leyva is hopeful that all efforts to test rape kits in San Diego County and across California happen as quickly as possible,” Reyes said this week. But “the senator has no comment on the pace of the work by the laboratory retained by the San Diego County District Attorney’s Office to conduct testing.”

Joyful Heart’s Knecht, based in New York City, said she was awaiting word on the progress of the bills as the legislative session nears its end Friday.

“There’s new research that came out of [Ohio’s] Cayuhoga County to show that testing rape kits will actually save communities money down the line,” she said. “It’s not really rocket science, right?”

When arrests and convictions are made thanks to rape kits being tested, serial offenders — including murderers and burglars — are netted, she said

“We just have to get that message to the [California] governor,” she said, if the bills land on his desk.

Knecht’s group says the audit would end the mystery of how many untested rape kits exist in California. She says her group’s requests under the state Public Records Act along with media inquiries estimate nearly 13,000 untested kits.

“But that’s just a snapshot,” she said.

Via its own Public Records Act request, Times of San Diego sought in late April to learn more about Stephan’s actions regarding rape kits — at least since she was appointed interim DA in July 2017.

But on June 5 — the day of the election — her office provided little information outside published news accounts. Her office cited several exemptions including the “deliberative process” privilege, the “core work product” protection and the “Official Information Privilege” about info obtained by the DA in confidence and “not previously disclosed to the public.”

A later request — filed June 7 and asking for all internal communications by Stephan and two other DA staffers regarding the Times reporter’s request — also produced no substantive information.

DA spokesman Walker declined to say how many results of tested rape kits are in the FBI database called CODIS (for Combined DNA Index System).

Jones-Wright, the public defender, reacted by asking: “Where is [Stephan’s] concern about innocent people being put in CODIS? … I see no safeguards in place to protect against this although this was her reasoning for not testing all of the rape kits initially.”

Noting that Stephan was chief of the DA’s Sex Crimes and Human Trafficking Unit, Jones-Wright said: “Here’s where we start to see more evidence of campaign rhetoric being just that — rhetoric.”

Jones-Wright also said the county backlog totaled more than 4,000 (“There were 2,873 sitting on SDPD’s crime lab shelves alone”). “So how are they deciding which ones get tested first, if at all?”

Stephan has said it was financially unrealistic to test every single rape kit and “even defended the idea that certain rape victims should be prioritized over others,” Jones-Wright alleged. “The long of the short is that 1,000 rape kits being sent to a lab doesn’t cut it. When will the rest be tested and what is the process for determining which ones are tested first?”

Knecht of Joyful Heart brushed aside a suggestion that she served as a political prop during her April appearance alongside Stephan.

“We’re really happy to assist anyone who says they want to take these kits off the shelves and get [them] tested,” Knecht said. “Our main goal is ending the rape-kit backlog. It is an issue that crosses the aisle. It’s really not a Democratic or Republican issue.”

Updated at 6 p.m. Aug. 30, 2018