Specialists collect sex assault evidence
In Colorado, much of the physical evidence that determines guilt or innocence in sexual assault cases is gathered by sexual assault nurse examiners trained by registered nurse Val Sievers.
Sievers is Colorado’s coordinator of these examiners. In addition, she educates nurses and physicians in the collection of evidence from adult and child victims and suspects. She earned her master’s degree in nursing and is a clinical forensic nurse specialist.
“One of the things I always tell law enforcement, the health-care provider is not going to be able to tell you whether the rape did or did not happen. That’s up to judges and juries,” said Sievers. “Nurse examiners will collect the evidence. But only a judge or a jury will be able to say if a rape occurred or did not occur.”
Colorado has standardized evidence collection kits, called rape kits.
Basically, it’s a large envelope that contains swabs, slides and specimen containers for collecting evidence from the human body.
Once a kit is completed by sexual assault nurse examiners, it’s sealed and handed over to law enforcement officials, who must sign for it. Analysis is done by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and they’re not opened until the CBI has them.
The 14-step process in completing a rape kit rarely varies. Both Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant and the 19-year-old Eagle County woman accusing him of sexual assault had to complete one, Sievers said, although not at the same time or place.
Of those 14 steps, Sievers said, some are boring, like taking blood and swabbing inside of the mouth. A pelvic exam is a regular for females, and both males and females receive anal exams.
Evidence collection is very similar for both males and females. Nurse examiners are looking for blood, head hair and saliva. The objective, said Sievers, is to establish victim DNA or suspect and perpetrator DNA.
“Similar steps also exist for suspects, who are both males and females,” Sievers said. “We’ll establish the suspect’s DNA, and potential DNA that may have been left on that person’s body or clothing from the other person.”
Nurse examiners also look for body surface injury and genital injury, said Sievers.
While genital injuries are fairly common in sexual assault, Sievers said judges and juries should not hang guilt or innocence on bruises and lacerations. They may not be present, she said, especially when victims are young, strong and fit.
“Body surface or genital injury is not always associated with sexual assault,” said Sievers. “Genital or physical injury is not always a hallmark of physical violence. “Many sex assault victims are young, strong and fit, and they might not show a great deal of that sort of evidence. Many do not have body surface or genital injury.
“That could be true in this case.”
Sievers said some bruises might not show up right away.
“They may have isolated bruises, and sometimes they don’t appear for days,” said Sievers. “What happens to a victim is different in each case.”
The longer a sexual assault victim waits, Sievers said, the more potential for the DNA on the body to be washed away or broken down.
“If you’re interested in collecting someone’s DNA on your body, the sooner the better,” said Sievers. But sometimes law enforcement will also ask us to collect evidence up to a couple weeks later.”
Still, she said, nurse examiners are trained to collect this kind of evidence.
She said a large numbers of rapists wear condoms, but there are other ways to track DNA.
“Maybe they have a genital or body surface injury that can be evaluated,” Sievers said.”It depends on what happened and what the victim tells you.”