NEW YORK — Evidence from up to 70,000 rape cases nationwide will get long-awaited DNA testing, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. announced Wednesday as he pledged as much as $35 million to help eliminate a backlog that has long troubled authorities, victims and lawmakers.
Experts estimate hundreds of thousands of rape kits — swabs and specimens gathered during examinations of victims — remain to be tested for genetic evidence that could identify, or eliminate, a suspect. Some kits have languished for decades.
Rape victims deserve to see that the extensive exams weren't for nothing, Vance said.
"We want them to know that we, as a nation, are doing everything in our power to bring justice to them," he said at a news conference with advocates including "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay.
The backlog is largely a factor of the $500-to-$1,000-per-kit cost of testing, but advocates feel it also signals that sex crimes haven't always been enforcement priorities.
"To victims, it says, 'You don't matter. What happened to you doesn't matter.' And to criminals, it says, 'What you did doesn't matter,'" said Hargitay, whose Joyful Heart Foundation helps sex crime victims.
The money comes from the DA's share of an $8.8 billion settlement with French bank BNP Paribas over allegations of violating U.S. economic sanctions by processing transactions for clients in blacklisted countries.
New York state communities will get priority in applying for the funding, which also will go to auditing how big backlogs are. Advocates hope it will build momentum to secure more money, including $41 million President Barack Obama has proposed; Congress is weighing it. An existing federal law also finances DNA testing to reduce evidence backlogs, but it's not just for sex crimes. Some states and private donors also have pitched in.
New York City tackled a 17,000-case backlog between 2000 and 2003. The results spurred more than 200 prosecutions citywide, Vance said.
One provided a long-sought answer for Natasha Alexenko, who was a college student when she was raped and robbed at gunpoint in her Manhattan apartment building in 1993. Tested a decade later, her rape kit then was matched to a suspect in 2007. He was convicted and is serving a 44-to-107-year sentence.
"Each rape kit represents a person whose body is a crime scene," Alexenko said Wednesday. The Associated Press doesn't identify sex crime victims unless they come forward publicly, as she has.
Other jurisdictions have been grappling with big backlogs. More than 12,000 kits went untested for years in Memphis, Tennessee, which is now working on them and facing a lawsuit from rape victims. In Detroit, prosecutors discovered more than 11,000 rape kits in an abandoned police warehouse in 2009; testing there so far has yielded 14 convictions.
Cleveland prosecutors have sent their entire 4,700-kit backlog for testing, so far yielding over 200 indictments and 50 convictions.
Reach Jennifer Peltz on Twitter @ jennpeltz.