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Answering the nagging questions about those 3,800 untested rape kits

  • Author: Jill Burke
    | Opinion
  • Updated: July 27, 2016
  • Published July 27, 2016

In my last column, I wrote about how an internal audit by the state of Alaska uncovered more than 3,800 sexual assault kits, some dating back to 1984, that were never submitted to the crime lab for processing.

As the magnitude of what these kits represent sinks in, Alaskans must be more than sad or angry, frustrated or simply resigned. As a state, we must take all those reactions and allow them to germinate into political will.

Our state's leaders must have the fortitude to pursue more than feel-good, no- or low-cost solutions. Our state's citizens must demand compassionate care for victims that rises to the highest-quality medical and forensic standards in anticipation of rigorously pursuing victim wellness while simultaneously laying a meticulous groundwork for criminal cases.

Neither easy nor inexpensive, it will take creative solutions and tenacious front-line advocates, personal commitments by friends and allies to support a victim through the healing process, teams of investigators who believe the victim and a revamped system that honors and proceeds at the victims' pace.

The state's fiscal crisis and its future economic health are unquestionably issues of great import.

But can any of us say that financial well-being, dollars spent and dollars saved, are more important than upholding human dignity and protecting human bodies from violation?

Alaska, we are capable of doing better.

An audit is a step in the right direction, a starting point, and as the conversation on this important topic evolves, I wanted to expand on some of the questions raised in response to the first column, with answers from subject matter experts. I hope it helps.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

It seems outrageous that such a large number of unprocessed kits exists. How did this happen? How do can people help to prevent it?

Amanda Price, senior adviser for crime and policy to Alaska Gov. Bill Walker: The governor agrees that it is unacceptable. When the numbers came in, he ordered that effective processing of these unsubmitted sexual assault kits be a priority. He also ordered a complete system review and overhaul to ensure this never happens again.

Whose fault is it for not submitting the rape kits?

Price: This is a system fail, not a failure of any specific entity. However, those in positions of leadership for our state have a responsibility to be aware of and diligently work to improve the safety of our communities. In this case, that did not happen until Gov. Walker demanded it.

Alaska State Troopers represent about one-third of the unprocessed kits. Another 1,400 are within the Anchorage Police Department. Others statewide have been tallied from less than two dozen of the some 50 other municipalities and boroughs that collect sexual assault evidence. As more audits come in, the number of unprocessed kits is expected to rise.

How will statutes of limitations affect the usefulness of kits that get processed now?

Clint Campion, Anchorage district attorney: It's complicated. Any sexual assault that took place in or after 2011 is not time barred — no statutes of limitations apply. Cases older that 1983 are probably too old for us to hold a suspect accountable for a sexual assault in that specific case, but the forensic information may still have use. Between 1983 and 2011 is what I'd consider a "gray area." During that era changes in law gradually expanded statutes of limitations on some sex crimes.

As unprocessed sexual assault kits are reviewed and viable kits are processed, and return actionable forensic evidence, prosecutors are going to look diligently at those cases, and we are going to aggressively pursue exceptions to the statutes of limitations.

Keep in mind that forensic evidence from a case too old to prosecute still has value. In a case that is newer, the old evidence may show a jury that a defendant has a history of sexually assaultive behavior. It may also provide an identity to a previously unknown suspect in an unrelated case. This is why continuing to build the FBI database is so important.

If a victim reports a rape, then either refuses to cooperate or changes his or her story, why bother processing the rape kit?

Kristin Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center: We need to remember that victims are making these decisions when they are in the middle of one of the most significant emotional crises of their lifetime. They're trying to make decisions about what to do while they are balancing concerns about how their community will respond to them with little faith that it will be with support.

Most assailants choose their victims with precision. They target people who trust them. They act in private to avoid witnesses. They may incorporate drug and alcohol use. They use just enough violence to get the job done. They choose victims they know can be discredited.

This perpetuates the television-drama myth that sexual assault victims will be bruised and look hurt. The absence of gratuitous violence doesn't mean violence did not occur.

Even today, victims struggle to feel believed and supported.

It is very normal for victims to want to put their victimization behind them. You can't put it behind you if police and prosecutors are asking you to talk about it and to go to court hearings. Refusing to cooperate or saying something didn't happen is a way to shut the process down.

Recognizing sexual violence is an epidemic in Alaska should give law enforcement pause. Chances are good a victim is telling the truth the first time around. Learning to work with victims, to find ways to preserve evidence even when a victim may decline to engage with the court system, ultimately benefits public safety efforts. It's how to identify, track and stop sexual perpetrators. Statistically, a rapist who strikes once has done it before and will do it again.

What are Alaska State Troopers doing differently now?

Col. Jim Cockrell, head of the Alaska State Troopers: I think we are worlds apart in the way we investigate sexual assault as opposed to where we were 20 years ago. The training that law enforcement now receives about victim psychology and the trauma of sexual assault is far better.

My goal is to transfer all sexual assault kits that are stored at 16 or so of our trooper posts to the state crime lab for storage and evaluation. Moving forward, all sexual assault kits that are initiated by Alaska State Troopers will go directly to the Alaska State Crime Lab for storage or for testing.

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