For years, potentially critical evidence in thousands of rapes in Washington sat untested in police evidence rooms or at state crime laboratories.
In 2015, the number of untested “rape kits” – containing biological evidence, such as saliva, blood, semen, urine, skin cells and hair – totaled an estimated 6,000.
DNA collected via the kits sometimes is the only way to identify a rapist. Without an identified suspect, the victim has no legal recourse.
“Law enforcement needs to have an identified suspect before referring a case to the prosecutor’s office for a charging decision,” said James Lynch, spokesman for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.
Even when a victim can name the attacker, rape kits are critical.
About half of the 2,500 cases with evidence the crime lab sees each year are related to sexual assaults, Shulter said.
Most of the State Patrol’s 37 analysts deal with evidence from all types of crimes, not just rape kits. But new legislation changed this as well: The seven new analysts now work exclusively on sexual assault kits collected since 2015.
In testing a kit, an analyst first examines the swabs and the victim’s clothing for the presence of semen, which would confirm sexual activity.
In checking the evidence, Shutler said, “You draw a circle around the items most likely to answer the questions you’re asking. If they don’t, you draw the circle wider. The intimate samples first, then the clothing, then the bedding.”
If the goal is to identify a perpetrator, the analyst looks for body fluids or hair. DNA extracted from these sources produces a unique profile of the person it came from.
But a unique profile isn’t enough to identify the offender. The DNA must be compared with that of the victim and any consensual sexual partners. Once other potential sources are ruled out, the analyst likely has the DNA of the offender.
The analyst then compares the DNA with that collected from suspects. The DNA is entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System. Known as CODIS, the database looks for a match among convicted offenders.
“Even if there is a known suspect that matches the collected DNA, the DNA profile would still get searched through CODIS to identify serial rapists,” Shutler said.
Contracted labs, such as Sorenson Forensics, follow the same process, but do not have access to CODIS.
Once an outside lab isolates the DNA, it sends the results to the state crime lab, where an analyst does a technical review, runs the DNA through the CODIS database and sends the results to police.
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PAYING FOR EVERYTHING
The cost of processing a basic rape kit is about $600, according to Shutler. Depending on how much evidence is processed, the price can hit $3,000.
Money appropriated by the Legislature will make some progress in cutting the number of untested kits, but an additional $1.5 million will be needed to end the backlog, according to the SAFE task force.
The crime lab has not spent any of the $2.47 million appropriated for the 2016-17 biennium. Instead, it has reallocated funds from federal grants to make progress while it builds up its workforce.
The funds allocated for 2016-17 have been carried over to the next budget term. The lab will use them once the existing federal funds are exhausted.
“It’s like getting an elephant through a straw,” Shutler said. “There’s no sense in getting the money up front when we don’t have the capacity to do the work.”
But more money will be needed. The Attorney General’s Office has applied for grants through the National Institute of Justice. One application was denied. The 2017 grants will be awarded in the fall.
The Legislature has tried to bring in additional money through a less conventional route. Patrons of live adult entertainment establishments are asked to pay a $4 fee to fund the sexual assault kit initiative.
A bill passed by the Legislature in April would allow the state to accept donations toward testing the backlogged rape kits.
“It all costs money,” Shutler said. “There’s a ton more we could do on the DNA side, but we don’t have the money or manpower. We all have budgets.”
THE RAPE KIT
Evidence for a sexual assault kit often is collected at a hospital when the victim first meets with law enforcement.
A sexual assault nurse examiner meets with the victim to assess her health and collect evidence.
Depending on the victim’s complaint, different types of physical evidence are collected. Swabs are taken of the affected areas, which may include the genitalia, anus and mouth. The nurse may scrape under the victim's fingernails or even comb through his or her hair.
The nurse also photographs the victim's body to preserve evidence of bruising and injuries like bite marks. For identification purposes, these photos often show both the affected body parts and the victim’s face.
“It’s a humiliating process,” said Detective Bradley Graham of the Tacoma Police Department’s Special Assaults unit. “We’re asking a victim to disrobe and have their body manipulated for the collection of evidence.”
After the nurse is finished, a TPD officer starts a report on the assault and takes possession of the rape kit. But it isn’t automatically sent to the crime lab.
“For evidence to be submitted and tested,” Graham said, “we must have victim consent.”
Only after police have consent is the kit submitted for testing.
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