Crime & Courts

Alaska gets $1M federal grant to process backlog of sex-assault evidence kits

WASHINGTON — Alaska has secured a $1.1 million federal grant to process some of the state's thousands of never-tested sexual assault evidence kits.

The three-year grant will help manage about 1,000 sexual assault kits that are in the hands of the Alaska State Troopers. The state will use the money to run tests, study policy shortcomings, investigate new findings and prosecute newly identified suspects.

"While we cannot solve these problems overnight, this grant will help us to make great strides in reducing the number of unprocessed sexual assault kits in Alaska," Alaska Gov. Bill Walker said in a statement. "These kits represent real people who are the victims of horrific crimes. We owe it to them, and all Alaskans, to end this pattern and ensure sexual assault kits are processed in a timely manner."

Nationwide, hundreds of thousands of sexual-assault kits, commonly called "rape kits," remain untested. Some await testing in overtaxed and underfunded crime labs. Many more sit on shelves in police departments.

In Alaska, at least 3,600 sexual assault kits — some decades old — were never submitted to the state's forensic laboratory.

And that's just the ones the governor's office knows about.

The more than 3,600 untested kits come from fewer than 20 of the state's 53 police departments and the Alaska State Troopers. The governor asked Alaska's police departments to volunteer information on never-submitted kits last fall, but there's no statutory requirement and most have not heeded the call.


[Opinion: Rape kit backlog reflects failure of justice in Alaska]

Sexual-assault kits include a variety of information that can be used to identify and prosecute a perpetrator: DNA swabs, hair, photographs and information from the victim. Testing is expensive — $1,000 to $1,500 on average, according to a nonprofit dedicated to the issue, End the Backlog.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety will also use the grant — a total of $1,090,450 — to fund cold-case investigators and prosecutors for any cases that develop kits are tested.

Amanda Price, Walker's senior adviser for crime policy and prevention, said she expects around 40 percent of the newly tested kits to lead to some kind of investigation, based on the findings of other states that have undertaken similar projects.

Beyond testing the kits, the state also plans to use the funds to figure out why the rape kits were never submitted for testing in the first place. The University of Alaska Justice Center will evaluate "common factors of unsubmitted sexual assault kits, and those results will inform training," Price said.

Investigators may not turn over evidence kits for testing for a variety of reasons, Price said. The charges may have been dropped. A suspect might have pleaded guilty. Or if a case was about consent, then the forensic evidence may not have been helpful for prosecution.

But there is still "really significant merit to processing DNA evidence," Price said, citing recent findings in other states that have started to process untested sexual assault kits and enter them into a larger database.

Whatever the state learns from the inquiry will then be used to drive policy or legislative changes to upgrade "how we as a state handle, store, and process forensic evidence" statewide, Price said. Price is leading a team that will make policy recommendations and includes the state's rape crisis center, the Office of Victims' Rights, and the Anchorage-based nonprofit organization STAR, Standing Together Against Rape.

So that processing older sexual assault kits doesn't "stall or delay incoming DNA for current crimes," the kits will be evaluated at the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory and then sent to an external crime lab for processing, Price said.

The grant to the state public safety department was one of 28 awards for more than $38 million parceled out this year by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance. Last year the department released $25 million through 19 grants to state, local and tribal governments.

"Reducing the backlog of untested sexual assault kits is a complex issue that requires a comprehensive, evidence-based and community-supported approach to resolve," said Director Denise O'Donnell of the bureau.

Recent nationwide efforts to test long-stored sexual assault evidence kits have netted results. By submitting DNA profiles to the FBI's national database, more than 1,200 potential serial rapists had been identified by August 2016, according to End the Backlog.

In Anchorage, Clifford Lee, 37, admitted in August to raping eight women over more than a decade. His connection to prior unsolved crimes was discovered when his DNA, entered into a database, "linked him to several unsolved sexual assaults from a decade ago," Price noted.

"Alaska has some of the highest rates of sexual assault and domestic violence in the nation. We must end this terrible epidemic, and that starts by addressing the thousands of sexual assault kits in the possession of law enforcement," Walker said of the announcement.

Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.