Search for justice: State chops away at rape kit testing backlog

Sunday , March 19, 2017 - 5:00 AM

MARK SHENEFELT, Standard-Examiner Staff

Two women who provide crisis support to sexual assault victims are beginning to have hope that Utah really will eliminate its backlog of untested rape kits.

The Utah Legislature last week passed House Bill 200, which sets up a state rape kit tracking system and mandates that officials work to eliminate a backlog of hundreds of kits statewide. Lawmakers also appropriated $1.2 million to hire more analysts at the state crime lab to test more kits. The law takes effect in 2018, allowing the lab time to gear up.

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“There may be reasons why the backlog exists, but when a kit just sits there it tells the victim, ‘What happens to you doesn’t matter; you don’t matter,’” said Terrie Stephenson, who has been a rape crisis counselor for five years with Your Community Connection in Ogden.

Potential DNA evidence going untested means some crimes go unsolved and the victims do not receive justice.

But several years of uproar over the backlog has helped generate action in local police departments, the Legislature and the crime lab.

“It’s better than it was,” said Julee Smith, YCC director. “All the controversy has raised awareness.”

Ogden Police Lt. Tim Scott said the department has eliminated its backlog of untested rape kits. Two years ago, 88 kits, some of them about a decade old, had not been processed, according to police at that time.

“The last three are going down to the crime lab this week,” Scott said. “We’re going to be completely clear of any backlog.”

Scott said Ogden participated in a statewide working group that formed in anticipation of HB 200. He said acceleration of kit testing has resulted in the cracking of a few local criminal cases — rape and other major crimes.

RELATED: Utah prison inmate faces trial in 2014 rape of Davis County girl

“We’re solving crime more efficiently, we’re solving them faster, and more importantly, we’re solving them for the victims,” Scott said.

Stephenson said improvements like quicker rape kit testing and a better safety net for rape victims are advancing societal sensitivity to sexual assault.

“I think people are losing their fear of speaking out about rape,” she said

Old thinking of “blaming the victim” is not as prevalent, she said.

A few years ago, thousands of untested rape kits were stocked on shelves in police departments and the state crime lab, which is run by the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services. Authorities claimed a lack of resources, and testing of some kits wasn’t a high priority because of questionable evidentiary value.

Prosecutors say the focus should be on testing kits that can break open cases.

“Our office has no problem with the concept of testing all kits; however, we do have a problem if testing all of them continues to delay justice due to lack of prioritization and funding,” Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings said in an emailed statement..

Rawlings said kits that should be moved to the top of the testing list are those:

  • Where the identity of the alleged perpetrator is unknown or in dispute;
  • Where the victim was unconscious, unsure or unaware if a sexual assault occurred due to a physical condition, intoxication or surreptitious administration of a substance;
  • Where the suspect claims no sexual contact occurred.

Rape kits have lesser value as evidence in cases where a suspect admits sex occurred but argues it was consensual, Rawlings said.

HB 200 allows officials to make decisions on the testing hierarchy, said state Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, Senate sponsor of the bill.

Supporters of additional crime lab funding requested $2.4 million but lawmakers halved the amount. Weiler said that’s not as much of a setback as it may seem.

“The reason why this is a huge step forward is that it is almost impossible to spend that much money ($2.4 million) in one year, because it takes months to find qualified (crime lab analysts) and to train them,” Weiler said.

The bill also requires the crime lab to set up a training system for police departments in rape kit processes.

You can reach reporter Mark Shenefelt at mshenefelt@standard.net or 801 625-4224. Follow him on Twitter at @mshenefelt and like him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/SEmarkshenefelt.

CQ/MS

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