Sen. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, has introduced legislation that would require an audit to determine if the state's Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory has a backlog of untested rape kits.
Rape kits, or sexual assault examination kits, are collected after claims of sexual assault and can provide DNA of alleged assailants. Most rape kits collected in Alaska are tested at the crime lab, though federal agencies use the FBI's laboratory.
Gardner's office has requested a Thursday hearing for Senate Bill 54 after legislative researchers returned unanswered questions about data on rape kits. Rep. Geran Tarr, another Democrat from Anchorage, has presented an identical bill in the Alaska House.
"How many rape kits typically go untested in Alaska each year?" Gardner asked in the research brief.
"Not known," the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory's forensic manager, Orin Dym, told legislative researchers.
Gardner also asked if the crime lab kept a percentage or estimate of untested rape kits in the absence of concrete data.
Dym said it did not.
There are monthly meetings with the Alaska Department of Law and law enforcement agencies to discuss testing priorities, the lab manager said. Presently, "priority rape cases" are tested within 40 days while "tests with low scientific value may take up to 14 months," the research brief says.
DNA obtained from rape kits is extracted, quantified and analyzed. The results are reviewed twice before the crime lab releases them back to the submitting law enforcement agency for possible pursuit of charges, said Department of Public Safely information officer Megan Peters.
DNA helps investigators match physical evidence with alleged assailants and prosecutors obtain convictions. The Law Department does not keep data on the number of convictions that result from evidence generated from rape kits.
The legislative researchers reported that law enforcement sometimes pursues testing only in cases with the best chances of being solved or when the alleged rapist is a stranger to the victim, though rape kits are collected in more than just those instances.
Dym provided data on how many kits have been tested in the previous four years. In 2010, 484 kits were tested. Last year, the number of tested kits totaled 443, according to the research brief. He said the crime lab, part of DPS, does not charge law enforcement agencies to test kits, but in a follow-up interview he estimated testing each kit costs $3,000 to $5,000.
"The first part is figuring out if there is a (backlog) problem," said Gardner. "It may be we don't have a problem, but my view is if the data isn't available, that's a problem all by itself."
Gardner said states forced to catch up on rape kit backlogs experienced surprising results.
At least nine states have passed legislation attempting to address backlogs. The laws tend to fall into these categories: requiring audits, inventories or tracking of kits; and mandating testing.
California lawmakers approved an audit to survey untested rape kits there, and in late 2014, the auditors said testing should be required in all instances where a suspect's identity is unknown, The Associated Press reported.
The research brief provided to Gardner indicates that California has enacted a law requiring law enforcement to submit sex-assault forensic evidence to crime labs within five days of collection.
Dym reported nearly all of the kits submitted to the lab are processed. Exceptions occur, he said.
Alaska State Troopers submit 40 percent of the total kits to the crime lab, second only to the Anchorage Police Department.
Kits go untested for various reasons, such as "anonymous reporting, case is un-prosecutable (victim withdraws complaint, suspect dies), consent," Dym said. In some instances the kit may never be submitted to the lab, he added.
Dym said it's unknown how many kits law enforcement use and do not turn in for testing.
APD Lt. Ken McCoy, who oversees the Special Victims and Crimes Against Children units, said APD's practice is to submit every kit for testing, but there are instances where kits may not be submitted.
"Those circumstances may include situations where the kit evidence is not probative. For instance, both the victim and suspect agree that the sex occurred; the question is whether or not the sex was consensual, which the kit will not prove," McCoy said.
"Other situations where the kit may not be submitted are in cases where the prosecutor has declined the case, the victim or suspect is deceased, the victim recants or the allegations are proven false -- those are some examples," he said.
On Feb. 1, the lab began requiring all kits be returned to the lab, but the DPS policy applies only to troopers.
The legislative researchers said a bill requiring the testing of all rape kits would be costly -- the exact cost unknown. They recommended the less expensive step of tracking and assessing a potential backlog.
"I don't think it's too onerous of a task to have (the crime lab) tell us what they have on hand and how long they've been there," Gardner said. "It's already part of their work to keep good records."
SB 54 also calls for plan to address the potential backlog.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing