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By bringing forgotten rape kits out of storage, Alaska may deliver long-overdue justice

  • Author: Jill Burke
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 24, 2016
  • Published July 24, 2016

The Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory. Photographed Jan. 14, 2014. (Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News)

This year, as Alaska Gov. Bill Walker and legislators tangled over the best way to solve Alaska's budget woes, he quietly launched a mandate to do right by Alaska's victims of sexual assault.

Ten months ago, Walker tasked all state of Alaska departments and law enforcement agencies with the duty to collect, maintain, store and preserve sexual assault kits to find out how many kits exist that have never made it into the hands of DNA analysts for review.

Walker acted after legislative bills introduced in spring 2015 that sought to require audits stalled in committee.

"It was in the best interest of public safety to proceed with requiring an audit, regardless of legislation," Walker said this weekend in an email.

The audit uncovered at least 3,800 sexual assault kits dating back as far as 1984 that were never submitted for processing. Another 67 pieces of evidence are housed at the Alaska Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory but remain in the queue, backlogged.

Walker calls the findings a matter of grave concern.

"We did not know about this problem before we ordered the audit. It is now a top priority. The goal is to clear the backlog within one year," Walker said this weekend via email. "Survivors deserve justice."

Delayed processing delays justice. It allows assailants to remain free and to possibly strike again. It undermines victims' faith that society believes what happened to them was wrong and will do something about it.

An effort is underway to deal with both the unprocessed and unsubmitted kits.

The state also plans to dedicate a cold case investigator and prosecutor to pursuing previously shelved cases that, once processed, yield a match in the federal Combined DNA Index System, better known as CODIS, said Amanda Price, Walker's senior adviser for crime policy and prevention.

Investigative priority will go to suspects with multiple victims, the degree of violence in the case and to suspects who are currently incarcerated.

Alaska is not alone in trying to overcome a gap in justice for victims of sexual assault. Last year, the White House committed $41 million to help communities evaluate and process an estimated 400,000 rape kits backlogged across the country.

In Colorado, processing a backlog of 3,542 cases yielded 1,556 DNA profiles to submit to CODIS, which returned 691 investigative leads and led to the identification of two men suspected of raping a woman who was walking home from her job at Denny's in 1984.

Statutes of limitations prevented prosecution for the sexual assault in that case, but authorities were still able to charge the pair with kidnapping, according to the Denver Post.

Alaska may not be alone in confronting the decadeslong failure to process thousands of rape kits, but its citizens who have survived an assault and endured being combed, swabbed and photographed to collect and preserve evidence may feel very much alone.

The evidence is part of their voice. Shelving it silences it.

At the heart of the effort to clear the backlog is a team of Alaska policymakers focused on victims.

"This has become much more valuable than just processing of the evidence. We are addressing the hard boxes but more importantly I want to address the philosophical way in which we think about sexual assault," Price said.

Price, who left her role as executive director for the rape crisis center Standing Together Against Rape to join the governor's office, maintains what she calls "a stringent belief that we are not doing enough to support victims after they report their crime."

The greatest number of unprocessed cases originated in Bethel and surrounding communities and in the Fairbanks area, Price said.

About one-third of Alaska's backlog is in Alaska State Troopers posts, Price said. The rest of the unprocessed cases were identified voluntarily by some, but not all, boroughs and municipalities statewide.

"Such a backlog suffers the trust Alaskans have given us in our charge to protect and serve. We will rectify this lapse and improve upon our performance and commitment to the safety of everyone who depends on us," said Walt Monegan, who took over as Department of Public Safety commissioner after Gary Folger retired in May.

The state is hopeful a federal grant will come through to fund sending the unprocessed kits to an outside lab and to pay for the cold-case investigative team. Without the grant, Walker is prepared to move forward with testing, but money for the personnel necessary to do something meaningful with the results relies on the grant.

"Hands down, without question, this initiative is focused on aggressively processing evidence, and pursuing perpetrators and holding them accountable," Price said.

There are reasons why a kit may not have been tested. Maybe the accused is already known and has admitted to sexual contact but claimed it was consensual. A case may have been dismissed. A victim may have recanted or refused to cooperate. Or maybe the kit was lost or forgotten.

The governor and Price, along with Monegan, intend to study the cases and the circumstances behind each result. Answering the "why?" is crucial to comprehensive reform, they said.

Justice is tricky, often elusive and slow, especially for victims of sexual assault.

"We can do what we can do. And this is one of those things that we can do," Price said. "It's in the best interest of victims. It's in the best interest of public safety. It's a good thing."

This is tangible action, the kind that can make a difference in not just one victim's life, but in the lives of many victims.

Yes, learning more than 30 years after your unsolved rape that perhaps, finally, there is a lead and that a court case may ensue, will be jarring. Child victims will now be adults. Victims may have let it fade away, moving on with their lives under the cloud of an unsolved attack as best as they can.

Price gets it. Her team is acutely aware that new information like this can open old wounds, and can re-traumatize survivors. With this in mind, they are working to create best practices for making contact with victims.

After all, it is about the victim.

None of us should ever have to ask, "Why didn't the crime against me matter?"

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com.

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