Tampa, Florida -- Update: Following our 10 Investigates report, The Justice Department and Manhattan's D.A. announced it will be handing out $79 million in grants to combat the nation's backlog of untested rape kits and Florida legislators are taking action already and Florida's Attorney General Pam Bondi announced a $300,000 study to figure out how much money it would cost the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to speed up the DNA testing process.
On Monday, Florida House Democrat, Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, filed a bill (HB 167) that would require law-enforcement agencies to adopt policies that include trying to ensure that evidence gets processed and returned to agencies within 12 months of alleged sexual assaults. "The Legislature intends that all state law enforcement agencies adopt formal policies to ensure that rape kits are promptly submitted and that the funding of the statewide criminal analysis laboratory system be addressed to help ensure that such kits are processed in a timely manner,'' the bill says.
Cruz's bill will be considered during the 2016 legislative session, which starts in January.
Meantime, thousands of rapists could be going free even though police may have the evidence to put them behind bars.
A joint USA Today /10 Investigates survey found police departments nationwide and in the Tampa Bay area have thousands rape kits with key evidence that have never been tested
It is an arduous, precise task that merges science and police work as these FDLE DNA experts are analyzing rape kits.
Debbie Smith who was pulled from her home in 1989 and taken to the nearby woods and raped says, "Every one of those kits is a human life. Every one of those kits has a name on it. Every one of those kits has a fragment of someone who was living life before this came into their life."
Smith says her husband, a police officer, convinced her she had to go to the hospital where she underwent a sexual assault exam.
"You're laying there with you legs wide open," Smith explains, adding, "Just after having been attacked in that way. It's humiliating, even at it's very best."
But Debbie Smith dealt with he humiliation because it gave her hope that her attacker would be caught. However, 10 Investigates and USA today partnered in a data analysis finding since the year 2000 more than 70,000 women who underwent the the invasive the rape exam, but their kits were never tested.
Smith believes, "Police departments don't want that number shown, because it looks like they don't care."
In Florida, the numbers are staggering with more than 5,000 (5,420) kits untested among five police agencies Jacksonville, Hillsborough, Miami Dade, Tallahassee and Polk County in the top 30 in the nation for untested kits.
We asked Hillsborough Sheriff's Office Colonel Donna Lusczynski to explain why Hillsborough has over 1,000 untested rape kits, which one of the highest in the country.
She told us, "Of those thousand there are a number set for disposal that have been reviewed."
According to Lusczynski, there are a variety of reasons the kits are tested ranging from being old cases, victims, or the state decides not to prosecute, the victim is uncooperative, or the rapist has been identified. But other agencies ran into the same issues, but they test the kits anyway because there might be a hit with somebody else.
We asked Lusczynski, has that ever come up with the ones you don't test saying, 'maybe we should do that?' She told us, "That is certainly something we are considering."
Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri is a prime example, saying, "We send everything to the lab." Pinellas has zero untested rape kits as they are immediately sent to the Pinellas Forensic Lab.
"We're taking what we have here from this scene and then compare it to a known database and you don't know exactly where that is going to lead you," Gualtieri explains.
Tampa PD is another shining example as former Chief Jane Castor issued an order in 2006 that every rape kit had to be tested because It can lead to arrests of serial rapists.
"That is the ultimate goal: to get the data into our database so we can provide any other investigative leads on other cases," says FDLE Forensic Chief Donna Wallace.
The database can make a huge difference as it did for Debbie Smith whose rapist was identified through a database.
"All of a sudden the man who had been tormenting me had a name, a face -- he was real," she says.
Because of that match Debbie Smiths attacker was convicted and is now in prison
Meanwhile, through our investigation, we uncovered the Polk Sheriff's Office is testing only half of the kits and that was the case in Pasco County too.
However, we sat down with Sheriff Chris Nocco of Pasco County who told us the agency is now testing every kit and also sending every untested kit over the past 15 years to the FDLE laboratory.
#TEST THE KITS
Here is what 10 Investigates found in other agencies in the Tampa Bay area:
Hillsborough Sheriff's Office has 1023 untested kits
Polk Sheriff's Office has 470 untested kits
Pasco County Sheriff's Office has 291 untested (planning on testing all of them)
Manatee Sheriff's Office has 47 untested kits
Sarasota Sheriff's Office has 82 untested kits
Pinellas Sheriff's Office has no untested kits
Tampa Police has no untested kits
Sarasota Police has 108 untested kits
St. Pete Police has 20 untested kits