3,400 and counting: Governor calls for inventory of untested rape kits in Alaska
Gov. Bill Walker says the state’s number of untested rape kits is a problem, and he’s on a mission to figure out what to do about it.
Last September, he asked every law enforcement agency across the state to report their inventory of untested sexual assault kits. All Alaska State Trooper posts reported their numbers and some police departments did as well, bringing the total to at least 3,400 untested kits.
But only 17 out of 52 police departments have sent in their inventory. The Anchorage Police Department is one of them. They have 1,691 kits, some dating back to 1993. While 35 other departments — including larger ones like the Fairbanks Police Department — have yet to report how many untested kits they have.
The governor can’t demand an audit without state law behind him. He would have to get a bill passed before he can force every department to comply.
“When we saw the numbers of how many were not being processed, we wanted to, you know, find out how large is the problem? How much is out there that we don’t know about?” he said during a recent interview with KTVA.
Michelle Collins, a forensic biology supervisor at the state’s Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory, said a common misconception is that they have thousands of kits there waiting to be tested, adding that they can only test what’s sent to them. She said the exact number changes daily as they process kits and receive new ones, but they only have an average backlog of about 60 kits at any given time that have not been processed. The rest of the untested kits in the state are in the possession of the law enforcement agency that collected them.
Once a kit is successfully processed, if it produces a suspect DNA sample, the sample gets entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). They can then cross-reference cases, and even tie new crimes to old ones. That means a kit collecting dust at a police department could be the missing piece of evidence keeping a rapist free.
“When there is a serial offender, it often is not known on the front end that certain cases are related, and it’s not until profiles from each of those cases are entered into the database and match each other, that we realize and then inform law enforcement that they have multiple cases linked to the same individual,” Collins explained.
She said as they’ve worked on decreasing their backload over the years, they’ve had a significant increase in “hits” in the system connecting multiple crimes.
“In all of 2015, we reported, I believe, 63 matches to law enforcement agencies,” she said. “We sent them a letter and said, ‘Hey this [DNA] profile in your case matched this offender, this arrestee who was also in the database.’ Already this year, we’ve sent over 80 of those letters.”
Two recent cases highlighted the importance of processing rape kits for DNA samples. Clifford Lee, an Anchorage man, pleaded guilty recently to sexually assaulting eight women between 2001 and 2014. He was caught after a string of assaults in 2014, but a DNA sample collected after his arrest connected him to other, older cases. Similarly, a former soldier was arrested after a woman was attacked, and a DNA sample connected him to two other sexual assaults for which he might not have otherwise been charged.
APD spokesperson Renee Oistad said there are several reasons why a kit may not get turned in to the lab:
- It’s a sexual assault case where both parties agreed sex occurred – the disagreement is over whether or not it was consensual.
- The victim either recants their story or refuses to cooperate with the investigation.
- Either the suspect or the victim dies.
- The kit is taken from a deceased person at autopsy wherein cause of death has not yet been determined. During the course of the investigation it’s determined sexual assault had nothing to do with the death.
- It’s discovered at a later date that the sexual assault was a false report.
- If the defendant takes a plea deal.
Amanda Price, the governor’s crime policy and prevention advisor, said they initially set out to find out how many rape kits were untested and why. But through their investigation, they uncovered flaws in the larger system of dealing with sexual assaults, like some police departments disposing of evidence. She said taking a deep look at the numbers is just the start of widespread change that needs to take place, to make the system more “victim-centered.”
Price said it’ll take years, but they might end up processing the backlogged kits at an outside lab and bringing in cold case investigators and prosecutors to get caught up. A large undertaking, given the state’s current fiscal crisis.
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