Washington has a massive backlog of rape kits that aren’t being tested

May 17, 2018, 6:20 AM
rape kits, dna testing...
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)
(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Thousands of rape kits have gone untested in Washington state for years. While there has been some progress speeding up the tests, it’s still slow going.

RELATED: The last time Washington tried to fund crime lab testing

When someone reports a rape, they often end up at a hospital where a rape kit is used to collect evidence, including potential DNA of the attacker. Leah Griffin had to go through it after she was raped in Seattle in 2014.

“That was a six-hour procedure and it’s six hours of invasion and embarrassment, and to then find out that my kit was not even tested as part of the investigation was infuriating,” she said. “To know that I had sat through something so incredibly probing and invasive and humiliating … for nothing.”

Backlog of rape kits

Griffen is part of the legislative sexual assault task force formed by state Representative’s Gina McCabe and Tina Orwall. Orwall says they realized there was a problem with rape kits not being tested.

“I had been touring evidence rooms and had seen these white boxes stacked to the ceiling and asked what they were and found out they were sexual assault kits and many were not tested. And we started passing legislation to address the issues,” Orwall said.

Orwall says that included 2015 legislation, making it mandatory for all police agencies to submit every rape kit for testing.

But just how many had gone untested wasn’t clear. Captain Monica Alexander with the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab said they reached out to police agencies across the state to get an idea of how many kits were headed to the labs, and ended up with an estimate of about 6,000. That was a few years ago. But Alexander says that number didn’t hold.

“As time went on there were other agencies that hadn’t notified us that they had kits that said hey we also have kits,” Alexander said. “At this time we know it’s more than 6,000 but we don’t know how much more. We’re estimating somewhere between 8000 and 10,000.”

A clearer picture is expected in about six months when a Sexual Assault Initiative Team out of the state attorney general’s office completes a statewide inventory of backlogged rape kits.

Sexual Assault Initiative Team

The team was formed a few weeks ago with money from a $3 million Justice Department grant — the attorney general’s office awarded it last year.

Orwall says half of that money will be used for testing the backlog of rape kits, some of which are decades old.

“And, of course, each of those kits represents a survivor whose voice wasn’t heard and didn’t get justice of what happened, and potentially some very dangerous offenders still on the street,” Orwall said. “I bet they assumed they were tested and we let them down as a state.”

Legislative bills out of the sexual assault task force did not pass last session. They aimed to help pay for testing the backlogged rape kits. At the time, there was money in the budget for seven new scientists at the state crime lab to focus on the backlog.

But Captain Alexander at the lab says hiring new scientists — and keeping them — is also a challenge.

“The hard part is actually trying to get them in and keeping them because as we hire them, and we have some of the best training in the United States bar none … but we don’t have some of the best pay,” Alexander said. “You get them trained and everybody goes ‘Wow, what great people I can save money on. I just hire them, they’re already trained, they know how to do DNA testing.”

Three to five years

The state lab processes all the new rape kits and sends the old ones to one private lab. Alexander says that only shaves some of the processing time off, which she says is currently about six months for a priority case.

“When we outsource them we still have work to do, so when they come back our scientists basically have to verify the work from the lab,” Alexander said. “It might take a little less time but it’s still work.”

Right now, Alexander estimates it could take 3-5 years to get through the backlog of test kits and new rape kits are taking around six months on priority rush, which still isn’t always soon enough.

Tumwater Police arrested a man on suspicion of rape in January only to find out he was accused in another rape in July of last year. The results of the first rape kit were rushed and took about six months. The results came in one day before the man was accused of raping the second woman.

Orwall says hopes to improve on that turnaround time in the upcoming legislative session.

“One of the things we’re looking at with our state lab is there’s a thing called a ‘high throughput lab’ which Ohio does,” Orwall said. “Which allows them to process about five times as many kits as you’re doing right now and we want to look at maybe proposing that next session.”

Ohio had a backlog of 14,000 rape kits, but state leaders announced in February they had cleared the backlog with turnaround times averaging a couple of weeks rather than months, and in some rush cases as short as eight hours.

Step in the right direction

Griffen, who works with Orwall and McCabe on the legislative sexual assault task force, says clearing the backlog has to be a top priority for the Legislature.

“Because of every year we don’t pass a bill and every year we don’t fund the testing of these backlogged rape kits is a year where we run up against more statutes of limitation,” Griffen said. “So, we could get to a point where we have not gotten these kits tested, you test them, find out there’s a serial rapist but now we can’t convict him because the statute of limitations has run up.”

Captain Alexander at the state lab says they’ve been able to upload 247 cases into CODIS — the federal criminal DNA database – and of those, 71 have come back with hits.

One important step in the right direction is a new statewide tracking system for rape kits. Washington will be the first state in the country to have the system when it is fully implemented, allowing hospitals and law enforcement and rape survivors to track their rape kits. A pilot is already up and running in around a dozen counties, it is expected to be implemented statewide in October.

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Washington has a massive backlog of rape kits that aren’t being tested