Politics & Government

Lawmaker wants state to follow Seattle’s lead on rape-kit testing

A group of state lawmakers is hoping to halt the practice of allowing untested sexual assault examination kits to collect dust on police department shelves.

House Bill 1068 would require law enforcement agencies to ask the Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory to test all new sexual assault exam kits. Each test request would have to be made within 30 days of the investigating police agency’s receipt of the evidence.

Supporters are hoping wider testing of rape kits would bring justice to more sexual assault victims. In Washington and across the nation, a large number of the kits remain untested for various reasons.

“This bill is a big step forward for our state to really make sure that the voices of victims are heard and that there’s a path for justice and healing,” said Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the bill’s sponsor.

The exact number of untested rape kits in the state isn’t known, but Orwall said the State Patrol estimates the number likely exceeds 6,000.

The Seattle Police Department announced Thursday it will begin doing DNA testing on all rape kits, including 1,276 kits that have been collected in the past 10 years and never tested. Of the 1,671 rape kits it has collected since 2004, only 365 have been tested by the crime lab.

The Tacoma Police Department, Pierce County Sheriff's Department and their contract cities have an estimated 1,354 rape kits on hand that have not been tested. Most rape kits are stored for at least 10 years. Some can be kept as evidence for 30 years.

Tacoma police have been sending evidence in some sexual assault cases to a private lab with money from a $225,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice.

The money is intended to help solve cold cases. In recent years, detectives have submitted more than 200 pieces of evidence in 34 sexual assault cases. Genetic profiles on 13 suspects have been developed and entered into a database, leading to the identification of nine of the suspects.

Rape kits are made at hospitals when victims of sexual assault undergo an examination after their assault. Investigators can use the DNA evidence collected to check for matches in a national database of convicted offenders.

Orwall said law enforcement agencies often decide not to send the kits to the crime lab for analysis because most victims of sexual assault know their attacker. As a result, agencies conclude that checking DNA evidence isn’t necessary for pressing charges.

Also, sexual assault victims sometimes don’t want the kits to be tested because they fear for their safety if charges are brought against their attackers.

Victim advocates say an advantage to testing all rape kits, even when it doesn’t lead to a conviction, is adding DNA profiles to the database that could help solve other crimes. It also tells victims they are being taken seriously.

“Whether you have a whole bunch or even just a couple thousand, the solutions are the same. They should all be survivor-centered,” said Erika Teschke, who started Rape Kit WA, a one-woman advocacy program, more than a year ago. She has championed the need for rape kit testing reform statewide, and in Seattle where she lives.

The State Patrol says the cost of testing a rape kit runs from $250 to $500. If Orwall’s bill passes, the patrol expects to need an additional $6.5 million in the 2015-2017 budget to run more tests and hire additional staff.

A previous version of the proposal required law enforcement agencies to submit all rape kits to the State Patrol’s crime lab within 30 days. The bill was amended Friday to require only that agencies request testing because the crime lab doesn’t yet have enough staff to take on a sudden influx of kits.

“If we don’t have the staff in place to effectively conduct the necessary analysis for that, all we’ve done is shifted what once was stored at local entities to a crime lab that’s not in a position to take that on structurally,” State Patrol Capt. Rob Huss said.

Under the amended bill, the crime lab would receive requests to test kits, and test each in order when enough money, storage space and staff are available. A work group would be created to study what to do with the thousands of untested sexual assault exam kits in the state.

Bob Calkins, State Patrol spokesman, said his agency supports the amended version of the bill.

“This would go a long way toward alleviating an unintended effect of this bill, which is that we would’ve needed to massively increase the amount of storage that we have at the lab,” he said. “We think it’s a great compromise.”

Orwall said she hopes Seattle’s decision to test all kits becomes a model for the rest of the state.

“I’m very grateful that they came forward to show leadership on this issue,” she said. “I just hope this bill allows the rest of the state to follow.”