State, local officials reviewing or changing policies on rape-kit testing

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Local and state officials across the country are reviewing policies and procedures for processing rapekits after a USA TODAY Media Network investigation last week.

Reports by USA TODAY and more than 80 Gannett and TEGNA local news organizations identified at least 70,000 untested sexual-assault kits across more than 1,000 law enforcement agencies nationwide.

Although testing can yield DNA evidence that helps identify suspects, bolster prosecutions or exonerate the wrongly accused, many agencies have not tested large numbers of kits that have been booked into evidence.

Following inquiries by the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat, the Leon County Sheriff’s Office decided to review each of the 66 untested sexual assault kits in its custody and institute new practices to ensure they do not accumulate without reasonable explanation.

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“This has opened our eyes to some degree,” Leon County Sheriff Mike Wood told the Democrat. “We have to change our way of thinking and think more globally and outside the box, and we are going to do that here.”

Nationally, records obtained by the USA TODAY Media Network show widespread variation in how law enforcement agencies handle the sensitive evidence. Some agencies send as few as two in 10 sexual-assault kits to crime labs for testing, while others send every kit.

Although attention has focused in recent years on rape-kit backlogs at the nation’s largest metro law enforcement agencies, records show hundreds of kits have accumulated at rural and small-city departments.

Responding to a report in the Green Bay (Wis.) Press-Gazette disclosing approximately 350 untested rape kits in Green Bay, state Rep. David Steffen said the issue “requires immediate investigation.”

“It is a priority for me to ensure that victims of rape are protected, and district attorneys are provided the necessary tools to have these cases properly prosecuted,” Steffen said in a statement, noting plans to meet with state officials to determine whether legislative involvement is warranted.

In Beaumont, Texas, half of thepolice department’s untested sexual-assault kits were from cases originating in other jurisdictions. Beaumont Police Department Lt. Karen Froman told 12News the department would change its procedure and begin to send letters notifying the other agency when it has a sexual-assault kit related to investigations in other jurisdictions.

“You can always do things better,” Froman told the station.

In the Lafayette, Ind., area, police told the Journal & Courier they would review their policies for rape-kit testing.

“As a result of all this coming to light,” said Tippecanoe County sheriff’s Chief Deputy Steve Hartman, “we’re actually having a conversation with the prosecutor now: ‘Do we go ahead and send in all these kits?'”

“We are now going to submit all of our sexual-assault kits to a lab, if they will take them,” West Lafayette Police Department Lt. Troy Harris told the newspaper.

Most states do not have laws setting forth criteria authorities should use to determine whether certain kits should be tested. Lawmakers in several states said they would look at whether changes are necessary.

South Carolina Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Larry Martin told TheGreenville Newsthat although there are sometimes valid reasons for not submitting kits for tests, lawmakers should consider whether a policy could help with such decisions.

“Generally speaking, I come down on the side of collecting as much information as we can because it does help law enforcement at a later time if there is a broader DNA base for identification purposes,” he told the News, noting he plans to talk to law enforcement officials about the issue and perhaps form a subcommittee to study it.

In South Dakota, where there are no state laws stipulating when a sexual-assault kit should be tested, officials told the Argus Leader they will consider reviewing the issue.

“I would support anything that considers a victim’s request or a case where there’s not a known suspect,” South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley told the newspaper. “But we have to consider whether or not there’s a prosecutable case. If a defendant has died or if the statute of limitations has run out, there needs to be prosecutorial discretion.”

“I’m still just astounded by the number of kits that are not tested. As time passes, it’s pretty easy for things to fall through the cracks. It’s something we need to look at to make sure that there are no gaps in the law on this,” state Rep. Julie Bartling said.

Mark Mickelson, chair of South Dakota’s House Judiciary Committee, was unaware of the issue, but said “new ideas are always welcome.”

The state and local reviews, in light of USA TODAY Media Network reports, follow years of work from national groups that advocate for sexual-assault survivors and urge Congress address the nation’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits, which may number in the hundreds of thousands across the nation’s 18,000 police agencies.

U.S. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., who authored the Debbie Smith Act in 2004 to provide federal funds for analysis of backlogged DNA samples, said the USA TODAY Media Network reports “should remind everyone that there is still much work to do.”

“I take this report very seriously and will be working across the aisle to do whatever is necessary to find every neglected kit, test it, and bring rapists to justice,” Maloney said in a statement. “It is completely unacceptable that sexual assault survivors are victimized again by our failure to process DNA kits efficiently, especially when we have the tools to do so.”

The accumulation of untested kits at many agencies have persisted despite the success that testing programs have shown in places like Detroit, where a comprehensive kit-testing initiative has identified 2,478 suspects — including 456 serial rapists as of June 30 — and 20 secured convictions.

“We aren’t afraid to look in the mirror and see perhaps that we could have done something better,” said Wood, the Leon County sheriff, “and there may very well be a piece of evidence here that will help someone that we didn’t help when we could have.”

Contributing: Leah Durain, 12News; Mark Walker and John Hult, Argus Leader; Katrease Stafford, Detroit Free Press; Tim Smith, The Greenville News; Steven Porter, Journal & Courier; Jennifer Portman, Tallahassee Democrat; Kyle Keegan, Gannett Wisconsin Media

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