Report: more than 3,000 untested rape kits in Alaska, here's why
There are 3,484 untested sexual assault evidence kits in Alaska, according to a report by the Dept. of Public Safety. This is the first time the state has ever collected comprehensive data on the matter.
Those kits never made their way to the state crime lab for testing. In many cases, they weren't needed to prosecute the crime. For example, if the alleged perpetrator and victim agree they had sex, a kit won't determine for a judge whether it was consensual. If the evidence wasn't necessary to get a conviction, or if the victim chose not to press charges, in many cases, those kits may not have moved from the location where the evidence was collected.
"The chemicals and the instrumentation that we use are very expensive, and there's a lot of staff time involved in doing the interpretation of the data," said Michelle Collins, forensic biology supervisor for the state crime lab. Collins says, in some cases, it can cost as much as $1,500 to test a kit.
Thousands of little white boxes containing the DNA evidence collected after a sexual assault are sitting on shelves across the state, in the possession of different law enforcement departments.
"These kits weren't just out there in unknown places, they were Trooper posts across the state, being held as evidence in proper evidence facilities," Major Bryan Barlow, of the Alaska State Troopers, said of the kits in the agency's possession.
The DPS report now shows exactly where that data is. Of the more than 3,000 untested evidence kits, more than 50 percent are with the Anchorage Police Dept.
"Previously, a kit may not have been tested because in that particular case known victim, known perpetrator, so identity was not in question, but our new understanding is that that perpetrator may have been involved in other cases, and so we need to test that because that may be the link," said Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage), who sponsored the bill that obligated law enforcement agencies to report their untested kits.
A link became clear in a case earlier this year. In January, 37-year-old Clifford Lee of Anchorage was found guilty of raping eight women from 2001 to 2014, a conviction made possible by previously tested DNA kits.
"So we know we had a dangerous sexual assaulter out on the streets for more than a decade and who knows, he may have been involved in other crimes," said Tarr.
This isn't just a problem in Alaska. In fact, there are hundreds of thousands of untested sexual assault kits nationally. A movement, known as End the Backlog, wants to change that. And Alaska State Troopers say they want to lead the way.
"We take these serious, these victims of crimes, regardless of the crime, they're not numbers. They're real people to us," said Barlow. "These cases are important to us, we're looking for ways to bring on more resources for the department in terms of personnel."
While the process of getting kits to the state crime lab may be backlogged, Collins says the process for testing them isn't.
"We're running about four to five months, turnaround time, that's really good compared to where it was a couple years ago when it was a year or two years," Collins said.
The goal now is to house all of the rape kits at the state crime lab, even after they're tested, and catalog the information within a national database. That can help to highlight cases where a perpetrator has multiple victims. So, lawmakers hope to catch serial rapists like Clifford Lee, sooner.
In 2016, the state was awarded a federal grant for processing untested sexual assault kits. Since then, Alaska has submitted about 600 kits to an outside laboratory. Collins says the results from those kits are expected to start coming back by this summer.
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