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Wednesday, September 30, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Rape kit testing backlogged in Idaho state labs

The head of the state crime lab says significant progress has been made on working through Idaho’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits, but the lab may be some distance away from reaching the mandated deadline. (Chris Bronson / Idaho Press-Tribune)
The head of the state crime lab says significant progress has been made on working through Idaho’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits, but the lab may be some distance away from reaching the mandated deadline. (Chris Bronson / Idaho Press-Tribune)
By Emily Lowe Idaho Press-Tribune

Nearly two years have passed since Idaho State Police began tracking and testing hundreds of previously unsubmitted sexual assault kits from nearly 115 law enforcement agencies statewide.

The State Police, along with the FBI, are tasked with testing DNA results from rape kits submitted by local law enforcement agencies across the state. ISP worked through 316 backlogged rape kits in 2017. But still, 527 unsubmitted kits dating back to 1995 remain unprocessed.

Matthew Gamette, ISP laboratory systems director, hopes that can be completed by the end of 2019.

“Even that is going to be a heavy lift,” he said, “because the number of collections from new cases is up dramatically.”

An Idaho Press-Tribune investigation in 2015 uncovered varying rates of rape kits submitted for testing by Idaho police agencies. State Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, introduced and passed a series of bills that outlined requirements for submitting rape kits for testing.

Previously, there were no statewide requirements for how long a kit had to be kept or what had to be submitted to Idaho State Police, Gamette said.

A rape kit is a collection of DNA evidence gathered after a sexual assault. It involves swabbing the victim’s body, clothing and personal items to collect the assailant’s DNA, which could potentially lead to arrests, charges or convictions.

The new legislation allows victims to see how far into the process their kit is by establishing a tracking system for the evidence. If evidence in the kit leads to someone with a previous offense, the victim will also know, Gamette said.

Wintrow’s legislation went into effect July 2016, and a year later the Idaho Press-Tribune reported that Idaho was leading the nation in sexual assault kit testing and tracking of kits. Gamette said their techniques prompted other states to see how Idaho was making their changes.

As far as Gamette knows, Idaho is the only state that has decided to backtrack and process rape kits that had been sitting on law enforcement shelves. Some states have followed suit with similar laws to Idaho but have only decided to test the kits from the time the law passed.

“We will be first in the country to complete all testing statewide,” Gamette said. “Even at that pace, we will be one of the first to complete the process. We are pretty proud of that.”

But the state still has a ways to go before all of the unsubmitted tests from prior years clear the FBI or state labs.

Gamette said there are currently seven DNA analysts at the state lab, though not all of them are fully trained yet. The lab is going to receive two more DNA analysts and a technician to work the kits next year, which will move testing along more quickly. However the analysts’ focus is not strictly on testing sexual assault kits. They also have to juggle testing other biology and DNA criminal evidence from homicides, assaults and other capital crimes in addition to keeping up with the previously untested kits and testing the new sexual assault kits.

If a victim declines to have their kit tested, or law enforcement determine no crime has been committed, a kit won’t be processed.

If a kit will not be tested, the victim is able to see that decision online, and a number is provided so the victim can get an explanation from the police agency, Gamette said.

But for those kits that will be submitted to labs for testing, the law now requires law enforcement agencies submit them within 30 days from when the DNA evidence was collected from the victim, Gamette said.

The state lab is now working closer with law enforcement to avoid any confusion brought on by the new legislation, Gamette said. This helps so the state lab is not surprised by the number of kits when they actually get submitted.

The FBI lab agreed to help with the overburdened state lab staff but is only accepting 185 kits from law enforcement agencies, Gamette said.

Gamette said State Police anticipated this, but many law enforcement agencies that were relying on the FBI lab to finish out its testing will now have to wait on the state lab.

Nampa Police Lt. Eric Skoglund said the department is still waiting to submit 47 rape kits that were previously unsubmitted, and have submitted 209 kits to the state lab for testing. So far the department has submitted eight current cases in accordance to the new state law, Skoglund said.

The Idaho Press-Tribune’s 2015 investigation found that the Nampa Police Department had the lowest rate of kit submissions to the state lab, at 10 percent. The department collected 105 rape kits into evidence that were never submitted to a lab for testing. In 2016, the department decided to submit 90 previously untested sexual assault kits dating back about five years.

In fiscal year 2015, the state lab received 390 DNA and biology evidence submissions. In 2017, that increased by 86 percent to 725 submissions. The increase could partially be attributed to the previously unsubmitted rape kits being tested, but Gamette said submissions are increasing all around.

The process for testing the kits and the amount of backlogged kits make testing more time consuming.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting (SAFER) Act Working Group is an arm of the National Institute of Justice and they set standards for rape kit testing. Gamette said Idaho is meeting the standards for testing in this group by using a more time consuming method of testing every sample. This means every area on a body that is tested and placed in the kit gets tested for DNA, even if the case discloses assault only occurred on one area of the body.

Using this holistic approach “slows down the process, but it’s the right way to do business,” Gamette said.

Skoglund said Nampa Police doesn’t have data on whether previously untested kits led to charges against a suspect once processed. Law enforcement often has a suspect before the kit is processed, he said.

The state lab can provide investigative help or a lead, such as providing the name of a potential suspect, Gamette said.

The DNA evidence stays in the database indefinitely, Gamette said. Law enforcement and labs across state lines search the database to see if DNA evidence matches up with any other crimes.

Leading the way

Idaho’s efforts have been noticed by experts in the field, including the Joyful Heart Foundation which focuses on improving societal responses to sexual assaults, said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

“They are creating and sharing the tool with other states which is generous,” Knecht said.

The state does allow law enforcement’s discretion to be used when choosing not to submit a kit for testing, which does not comply with the foundations beliefs. But she said the foundation finds comfort with how proactive the state lab and Gamette are with law enforcement.

Gamette said it’s been interesting to lead the nation with legislation that’s being used as a model for other states. Gamette has spoken with law enforcement in neighboring and Midwestern states about Idaho’s new kit tracking system.

“Sometimes leading also means that you’re having to forge the trail,” Gamette said. “So you’re having to learn lessons that couldn’t have been anticipated. I think that’s where we are at.

“It’s brought a lot of work, but the victims and victim advocates can be assured through the work being done that the lab staff and law enforcement are taking it very seriously,” he said.

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