State to process portion of backlogged rape kits

The state of Alaska will soon process and analyze more than 1,000 sexual assault kits currently in the possession of Alaska State Troopers thanks to a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice.

Gov. Bill Walker ordered an inventory of Alaska’s backlogged kits in September 2015. It was completed in December of that year and found more than 3,000 sexual assault kits, commonly called rape kits, in the possession of troopers and other law enforcement agencies that were never submitted for processing to the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory in Anchorage, said Amanda Price, a senior advisor to the governor on crime policy and prevention who has been working on the issue. The focus of this project is to process the approximately 1,000 kits in the hands of troopers because that is the law enforcement agency the state has jurisdiction over, she said in an email.

“This project will exponentially improve the way Alaska responds to sexual assault reports, in a victim centered way, and holds offenders accountable,” Price wrote.

Alaska has one of the largest problems with sexual assault in the country. According to 2015 FBI crime estimates, 88 incidents of sexual assault are reported per 100,000 people in Alaska, using the “legacy” Uniform Crime Reporting definition of rape. According to the revised definition of rape, that rate is even higher in Alaska, the FBI data shows.

The number of reported rapes per 100,000 people nationally was only 28 last year, according to the crime estimates.

The state applied for the three-year grant from the Department of Justice in March of this year, Price said, which will pay for the kits to be processed. The grant also covers costs for the state to hire a cold case investigator and a prosecuting attorney to focus on any viable cases that come up during the review, according to a release from the governor’s office.

“Kits will first be transferred to the state crime lab for evaluative purposes, then to an external crime lab for processing so as not to stall or delay incoming DNA for current crimes,” Price wrote in an email.

Soldotna Police Chief Peter Mlynarik said there is no difference between how rape kits are processed locally and on a statewide level. They are collected or put together locally, and then sent to the same state crime lab in Anchorage, he said.

To the best of his knowledge, the Soldotna Police Department has not had a backlog of sexual assault kits, Mlynarik said.

One of the review’s focuses is to uncover the reason so many rape kits never get submitted to the state crime lab in the first place, Price said. The University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center will also evaluate the kits in question to see if there are any common factors that led investigators to decide not to send them for processing, according to the release.

Paul Cushman, investigative sergeant for the Kenai Police Department, said there are a number of reasons the decision gets be made to not submit a kit to the crime lab. If a person who is sexually assaulted consents to get a rape kit done at the hospital but decides not to press charges against the assailant, for example, that kit does not get submitted to the lab, he said. If consent, rather than the sex itself, is in question, that can also lead investigators to decide not to send in a kit for processing.

“The only times really they don’t go (to the crime lab) is if the victim and the suspect both essentially agree that there was some sort of sexual act that took place and really the question is was it consensual or not?” Cushman said.

When sexual assault kits are processed, the DNA tested from them can show that sex did in fact happen, but cannot prove the presence or absence of consent, he said.

“The kit does not provide evidentiary value,” Cushman said.

Officers work with district attorneys to make a joint decision about whether to send a rape kit to be processed, Cushman said. When the kits are deemed unnecessary to process, he said investigators keep them so as not to create a backlog in the state crime lab.

Certain crimes, like sexual assault in the first degree, do not have a statute of limitation in Alaska. Cushman said investigators keep rape kits that are not processed for up to 50 years. That goes for cases where a survivor decided not to press charges in case they change their mind down the road, and for cases where a suspect went through the court process and was found guilty, he said.

The results of the Justice Center’s review will inform future training for law enforcement, Price said in an email.

“The project with AST will lead the way for the state to understand challenges, then introduce policy or legislative changes that apply to all jurisdictions regarding how we (as) a state handle, store, and process forensic evidence,” she wrote.

Officers do get training in how to handle sexual assault cases, Mlynarik said, though some may build on that training more than others down the road. Officers get a basic training on sex crime cases, and some may participate in additional academies and opportunities, he said.

“There’s various trainings that come up,” he said.

At the Kenai Police Department, Cushman said members of the investigations unit, which is understaffed at the moment but usually consists of three officers including himself, have to go through a 40-hour Sexual Assault Response Team, or SART, training.

Those working on the rape kit review also include Standing Together Against Rape, a rape crisis center, and the Alaska Office of Victims’ Rights, according to the release, and they will help influence policy change to “ensure a strong victim-centered response” to sexual assault cases in the state.

“These kits represent real people who are the victims of horrific crimes,” Walker said in a statement in the release. “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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