State gets grant to process backlogged rape kits

The state of Alaska has been awarded $1.1 million from the U.S. Department of Justice to process a backlog of rape kits held by the Alaska State Troopers.

Amanda Price, a senior adviser to the governor, has been working on the issue for more than a year. By phone, she said the backlog being addressed isn’t at the state crime lab. Rather, these are kits that were collected but never submitted to the crime lab in the first place.

“What we’re looking at are unsubmitted kits,” she said.

Rape kits contain DNA evidence collected from sexual assault victims by police, but not all kits are analyzed for such evidence or compared against national databases.

Lt. David Campbell of the Juneau Police Department said there are a variety of reasons why. A rape kit reveals if sex has taken place, but in a date-rape case, the issue is about consent, not whether sex took place. Analyzing a rape kit may not reveal information that helps prosecutors.

Other cases — for example if someone admits a crime — may be prosecuted without the evidence within the kit.

“Not all kits get processed. It’s just not that simple,” Campbell said.

The University of Alaska Anchorage will be attempting to answer exactly why the state has so many unprocessed kits. In September, Gov. Bill Walker made the issue a statewide priority and asked for a survey of unsubmitted kits. That survey was completed in December and found more than 3,000 unprocessed rape kits at law enforcement agencies statewide.

The grant announced Tuesday in a message from the governor’s office only applies to the 1,000 or so kits held by the Alaska State Troopers.

By email, Price said another 350 or so kits are held by the Juneau Police Department. About 1,400 are in the hands of the Anchorage Police Department.

Campbell could not confirm the number of kits held by JPD but said that because there is no statute of limitations on rape in Alaska, the department must keep every kit unless a court specifically allows disposal.

Each kit consists of a cardboard box containing a checklist, materials and instructions, plus envelopes and containers to package any evidence collected during an exam.

The kits will be transferred to the state crime lab, where they will be checked for relevancy.

“The kits that have probitive value … we will send for processing to an external crime lab,” Price said.

An external lab will be used in order to reduce demand on the state lab.

“We’re looking at a decade’s worth of backlogged DNA material,” she said.

The Alaska Legislature failed to take action on the backlog despite a pair of bills sponsored in 2015. A bill sponsored by Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage and the Senate Minority Leader, never received a hearing in the Senate State Affairs Committee. A bill sponsored by Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, passed two committees but never received a hearing in the House Finance Committee.

In May 2015, the Legislature’s budget and audit committee ordered a full audit of the state crime lab from 2008 through 2015. According to the audit schedule published by the Division of Legislative Audit, staff are performing field work on the issue.

Processing the kits under the new grant is expected to take a year, and the three-year grant also pays for a cold-case investigator and prosecuting attorney to focus on the cases that result from the crime-lab review. Those two positions will be filled in the second year of the grant.

“While we cannot solve these problems overnight, this grant will help us to make great strides in reducing the number of unprocessed sexual assault kits in Alaska,” Gov. Bill Walker said in a prepared statement. “These kits represent real people who are the victims of horrific crimes. We owe it to them, and all Alaskans, to end this pattern and ensure sexual assault kits are processed in a timely manner.”

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