The Department of Public Safety is sending a backlog of thousands of untested rape kits out of state for analysis. Department leaders say that’s the only way to get a handle on the problem.

Michelle Collins, the forensic biology supervisor at the State Crime Lab, says her team simply doesn’t have the resources to get the job done at their Anchorage headquarters.

In 2017, a statewide inventory found more than 3,000 sexual assault kits spread across nearly 50 police agencies had never been submitted to the crime lab for DNA analysis. Commissioner of Public Safety, Walt Monegan, explained the predicament in a post on the department’s website:

“These kits spanned three decades, and there were many reasons kits were not submitted for testing over the years. In some instances, the kit was not submitted for testing because it was not needed for the immediate case. Sometimes, law enforcement or prosecutors made the determination that a sexual assault investigation would not proceed any further in the criminal justice process and declined to submit the kit for analysis. All of these decisions were made based on individual cases, and not necessarily with the potential impact on other cases in mind.”

Public outcry led to action from lawmakers with House Bill 31, which requires sexual assault training at all police academies and an annual audit of unsubmitted sexual assault kits.

There are still 2,568 untested kits, according to 2018 data released Friday, which doesn't account for kits belonging to anonymous victims. A webpage launched by the Department of Public Safety, lists the inventory of unsubmitted tests statewide.

 

While numbers are down, it's still too overwhelming for the Alaska State Crime Lab to tackle alone. The Department of Public Safety says the turnaround time on new kits submitted to the crime lab averages around six months. 

“We get about 800 cases a year for DNA analysis through our regular case work submissions flow," Collins said. "With the trooper cases that were previously submitted, we are talking about 600 sex assault kits. When you add in the rest of the law enforcement agencies in the state, it’s about another 2,600. So with our current staffing, there is no way we can handle that big influx of 3,000 kits."

 

Roughly 1,500 62 percent of the untested kits come from the Anchorage Police Department, where they have accumulated over the past 25 years, according to Capt. Josh Nolder, who oversees the detective division.

“They weren't going to be tested, but we kept them. We warehoused them, so in case in the future they were going to be of some use. That's a very small portion of the yearly sexual assault cases that we take,” Nolder said. “We are actively working with the crime lab to get our untested kits to the state so that they can get them out to an outside DNA lab."

Two large-scale efforts, outlined on the new webpage, are working to address the backlog.

The first, the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, is focused on untested kits belonging to cases from the Alaska State Troopers. The department was awarded $1.5 million in grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to pay for the project. At this time, all of AST’s eligible kits have been submitted to Bode Cellmark Forensics, a private lab on the East Coast. More than half of the results have been returned and the rest are expected back in spring 2019. Funds have also paid for a cold case investigator and prosecutor to evaluate impacts of the DNA results, according to public safety officials.

The second effort is called the Alaska Crime Lab Capital Project. The Alaska Legislature designated $2.75 million in capital funds for the Department of Public Safety to address untested sexual assault kits. The money will be used to begin analyzing the untested kits associated with other law enforcement agencies across the state. The first kits are expected to be sent to Bode later this month.

Testing of all the kits is estimated to take 3-4 years.

Once the kits are returned, Collins says they will be put into the Combined DNA Index System to look for a match. If there is one, the crime lab will complete a confirmation assessment and determine whether to notify law enforcement and the Department of Law.

“We've always known that there is a more global value in testing these kits that isn't just to that specific case," Collins said. "The evidence in a kit in one case actually has the potential, through the use of the DNA database, to solve cases where maybe the subject is unknown.”

The funding for both projects are one-time-only allocations. Collins says there's a risk untested sexual assault kits may pile up again. Moving forward, the crime lab is recommending a dedicated sexual assault team, with a $700,000 annual price tag, which would pay for four additional DNA analysts and equipment.

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