News-Miner opinion: It’s been a year since former Gov. Bill Walker’s administration hired a cold-case investigator to comb through nearly 3,000 untested sexual assault examination kits. It was a new step in trying to solve a problem that is anything but new; you can find news stories from 10 years ago about the backlog of untested kits.
A bill under consideration in the House would go a long way toward ending the sorry situation by requiring timely submittal and processing of a kit for DNA testing.
The kits include potential evidence — bits of clothing, tissue swabs and samples of hair, skin and blood — but were never submitted to a laboratory for analysis. The effect is profound: Potential criminal are on the loose.
The head of the state’s crime lab has said that some of the untested examination kits were not forwarded for testing because the accused person had confessed or because they involved date-rape cases in which consent was disputed. Even so, that’s an awful lot of exam kits that have been sitting around. And for those kits that don’t fall into those categories, the turnaround time has been too lengthy.
Several things need to be fixed. House Bill 20 would improve the situation markedly by doing the following, as described in the sponsor statement by the bill’s author, Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr, of Anchorage:
• “Help prevent a backlog of untested sexual assault examination kits or rape kits, by requiring law enforcement to deliver sexual assault kits to a laboratory within 30 days and testing is done within six months.”
• “Requires that two weeks after the completion of the testing, the victim is notified that the kit has been tested, thereby lessening the burden of waiting on unknown timelines for the process to gain closure for victims.”
• “Requires the yearly reporting of the backlog of sexual assault kits to include more detail about the numbers of kits that are going untested and the reasons why that might be.”
A November 2018 report from the Department of Public Safety to the Legislature indicates that the 48 law enforcement agencies in the state had a combined 2,568 untested sexual assault examination kits, with 62% of them coming from the Anchorage Police Department. The Fairbanks Police Department accounted for 6% of the total. The state’s Scientific Crime Detection Lab had 219 additional examination kits that had been awaiting analysis for more than 30 days.
How many of those exam kits will lead to convictions of perpetrators? That can’t be known until the kits are tested.
HB 20, which also addresses the subject of what constitutes consent for sexual contact, is a significant and overdue step toward achieving timely processing of sexual assault examination kits.
“Every day a sexual assault kit goes untested is another day that a predator is on the streets endangering us all,” Rep. Tarr’s sponsor statements reads. “A shorter timeline of collection of evidence to processing kits will hasten the justice for the victim.”
Justice should be timely. And that can’t happen if potential evidence isn’t getting processed promptly.