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Expert: Sexual-assault evidence kits need update

Investigator says DOD needs better forms, equipment to collect evidence for trials

VICENZA, Italy — Kits used by the military to collect evidence in sexual assault cases do not have enough equipment or the necessary paperwork for investigators, a military forensic specialist testified at a recent court-martial.

Furthermore, those using the kits might not be receiving the proper training, she said.

Navy Cmdr. Lovett Robinson, senior sexual assault forensic examiner for the National Naval Medical Center, was called to testify as an expert witness at the recent court-martial of Sgt. Vince Jahalal, who stood trial on a charge of forcible sodomy.

During questioning from Jahalal’s defense attorney, Robinson testified that she believes the three pages of paperwork included in the kits don’t supply enough information on the evidence collected and circumstances surrounding the case.

She also told the court that when she’s collecting evidence in such exams, she uses about twice as many swabs as are currently included in the kit in order to gather more evidence.

While Jahalal was found not guilty, it’s unclear what impact Robinson’s testimony had on the nine-member military jury. Jury members are instructed not to talk about their deliberations afterward.

Capt. Evan Seamone, Jahalal’s defense attorney, said in a phone interview this week that he didn’t feel it was proper for him to talk about a witness’ impact in a case. But in his closing arguments during the trial he summed up Robinson’s testimony that the eight-page Defense Department Form 2911 for such cases, which calls for "70 percent more information than what’s in that (kit)," isn’t included in the kit.

It was also unclear whether Robinson’s testimony might have an impact on future courts-martial or those under review that have already been decided.

Guy Womack, a civilian defense attorney who frequently represents U.S. servicemembers at courts-martial, said jurors appear to be increasingly savvy when it comes to DNA evidence. Womack, who practices in the States, had no involvement in the Jahalal case.

"We expect a lot more now when it comes to the government’s CSI [crime scene investigation] cases," he said in a brief phone interview from his office. "If the forensic evidence is crucial to the government’s case, it is also crucial to the defense’s case."

The sexual assault response kits were developed by the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory, or USACIL, for Defense Department use. Chris Grey, chief of public affairs for CID, or Criminal Investigation Command, defended the kits in an e-mail.

"The kit contains the required documentation for effective forensic analysis: any injuries sustained, the type of evidence collected … and the location from where the evidence was obtained."

But Robinson testified that she uses Defense Department Form 2911, which she said presents a more complete picture of the alleged assault, and those forms aren’t included in the kit.

Grey said there have been discussions about the paperwork supplied in the kit, but there wasn’t a consensus formed by a working group in February that Robinson was a part of.

He wrote that some Army laboratory personnel had issues with some of the information included in DD 2911, and it was agreed that changes were probably needed in both that form and the one in the kit. He wrote that once those changes are made, "… pertinent information will be included in the kit instructions."

CID and Army lab believe "the kit contains all the documentation needed to evaluate effectively the evidence collected," Grey wrote.

Grey noted that the sexual assault response kit was specifically designed so it could be used in the sometimes austere environments in which the military operates. Several years ago, a change was made in the way blood was collected that eliminates the need to refrigerate the kits.

While agreeing the kit was "sufficient," Robinson said its contents and practices of those using it need to match up with DOD instructions.

Grey wrote in his e-mail response that there have been recent discussions on the kit and some changes are planned. He referred again to the discussions in February.

"USACIL experts agreed to the value of adding these swabs and are in the process of updating the kits," Grey wrote. "Until the kit is updated, nurses and medical personnel are trained to use additional swabs if they feel they are needed in a particular case."

But during the court-martial, Robinson testified the military doctor who conducted the exam in the Jahalal case wasn’t trained to DOD standards. The doctor, who was conducting her first such exam, was certified after attending a five-day course at the University of California, Davis.

She called the doctor’s training "competent but incomplete."

In an e-mail response after the court-martial, Robinson said the training was only adequate for California.

"This training has the basics, but is less than the requirements for DOD," wrote Robinson, who testified that she’s only one of two people in DOD currently qualified to train other sexual assault responders.

During her testimony, Robinson said the DOD had trained more than 600 responders in the past five years or so. But she admitted that of the entire number of personnel currently collecting evidence in sexual assault cases, "a large number go outside" DOD to receive their training.

Womack, the civilian defense attorney, said if military medical responders aren’t properly trained up to DOD standards, "then we can’t have faith in their work."


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