Justice delayed is justice denied to Alaska rape victims

Some issues are hard to think about. Rape is one of them. But what's even harder to think about is the fact that those who suffered the trauma of sexual assault and all its physical and emotional ramifications, have had to suffer yet again due to the negligence of the state.

Last year, I requested an audit of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory after receiving calls from current and former employees of the lab who voiced grave concerns about its mismanagement. Anchorage Rep. Geran Tarr carried the request on the House side. It was approved by the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, and in September we expect to receive an audit report.

In order to seek criminal prosecution in the immediate aftermath of rape, when survivors are feeling most violated and vulnerable, they are asked to go through a process of evidence collection and physical examination which can be excruciatingly difficult to endure. Samples of semen, hair and fingernail scrapings are collected. Photographs of injuries are taken, and all the physical evidence is compiled and stored in what is called a "rape kit." Nearly all of them are processed at the Anchorage crime lab. At least, they are supposed to be.

Victims find it within themselves to endure the process of evidence collection because this is the only way in many cases that justice can be served. It will help ensure the criminal is brought to justice, and future victims will be spared.  That's what survivors are told, and what makes the betrayal of them by the system even more difficult to bear.

In Alaska alone, where over half of all women statewide have reported being the victim of sexual assault or intimate partner violence, more than 500 rape kits collected between 1984 and the present sit in storage. Untested. The evidence that could bring the guilty to justice, and prevent the perpetrator from raping again sits on a shelf gathering dust. If you are like me, you ask yourself how can this possibly be?

Preliminary questions posed to crime lab management revealed some major problems, leading Gov. Bill Walker to order all kits be tested. A complete review of the system will be implemented to ensure we never allow this to happen again. I applaud the governor's actions in taking the next step in creating a system that does justice for survivors, and for the community.

In addition to these measures, we are currently waiting to hear whether Alaska will receive federal grant money to assist us in handling this awful situation. But even if the money does not come through, Alaska is committed to test every single rape kit in possession of the crime lab.

Data from the evidence will be uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System, which will cross check DNA evidence with suspects in all open cases. This mechanism has been used by other states and municipalities across the country to identify and prosecute serial rapists. If the federal money does come through, we can go a step further and take a deep look at cold cases from years past to seek justice in unsolved cases. We will find out in August whether those funds will be available.

I put forward legislation last session calling for an audit of all untested rape kits in the state. It died in committee. Now, after the governor's actions to rectify the committee's inaction, I plan to continue the push by submitting legislation next session to require a yearly audit of all rape kits, because this can never be allowed to happen again.

But right now, I want to thank the governor for stepping forward on this issue, and say to those who have survived rape and sexual assault, and who have been brave, and who tried to do the right thing, that what happened to you is important. It matters. Your community cares. And despite the inexcusable delay, a huge step toward justice will be taken for you and for all of us.

For those survivors who have chosen not to come forward because you believed that nothing would happen, and no one would be brought to justice for the crime committed against you, I assure you that I am in your corner, and fighting to change the current broken system, because everyone deserves justice.

Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, has served in the Alaska Legislature since 2005.

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