State gets $3M to ease backlog of 6,000 untested rape kits

“It maybe 15 years later, but they can see how that trauma has gone on for victims.”

By Sara Jean Green / The Seattle Times

The state’s ongoing efforts to analyze DNA from thousands of previously untested evidence kits and investigate possible sexual-assault suspects has received an infusion of federal cash.

“The timing could not be better,” Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said of news last week that Washington is among 20 jurisdictions to be awarded a share of $34 million in grant money from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).

Washington will get $3 million, tying Atlanta and slightly edging out Kentucky for the most grant money awarded to a jurisdiction.

Half of the $3 million will go toward testing 2,100 so-called rape kits, roughly a third of the estimated backlog of 6,000 that have sat untouched in police evidence rooms statewide. Each kit — which contains forensic evidence from an alleged victim’s clothing and body and is collected by a sexual-assault nurse examiner — costs about $700 to analyze for suspect DNA that is then entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System.

The remaining half of the grant money, to be distributed over three years, will fund an investigative team, which will include two full-time investigators, according to the state Attorney General’s Office. A sexual-assault initiative team will spend the first six months traveling the state to obtain a detailed inventory of untested kits, then will help local police agencies prioritize kits for DNA testing at the Washington State Patrol’s five crime labs, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

The state has applied for the federal grant twice before and was turned down because federal officials did not recognize the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs as a government entity, said Orwall, who has sponsored rape-kit legislation and co-chairs a state task force on the untested kits.

This year, the Attorney General’s Office got involved and submitted the successful grant application, Orwall said. Washington now will be able to access a federal technical-assistance team and receive training for police on how to investigate cold cases in a way meant to prevent rape survivors from being re-traumatized, she said.

Until a new state law took effect in 2015, it was up to individual officers or detectives to decide whether to send a rape evidence kit to the crime lab for DNA testing — and the decision was frequently driven by whether an officer believed the allegation or considered the victim credible to testify at trial.

The kits typically weren’t tested if a victim knew the alleged assailant because creating a DNA profile was deemed unnecessary.

Now, officers don’t have discretion over which kits get tested, which is meant to eliminate possible police bias while increasing the odds that serial offenders — especially those who claim to have had consensual sex with their accusers — can be connected to multiple cases through their DNA.

Orwall already has reviewed a handful of case notes written by detectives who made derogatory remarks about victims and said things such as, “Do not believe her. She didn’t cry,’ ” she said. Many of those officers still work in departments where cold-case teams will be investigating old rape cases.

“This whole thing with older cases is going to be really uncomfortable,” Orwall said. “I think that’s just part of the dynamic going on with these cold cases. It may be 15 years later, but they can see how that trauma has gone on for victims. It does make you feel sick and sad,” she said.

But no matter the discomfort it might cause, Orwall said she is committed to championing a cultural shift in the way rape survivors are treated and offenders are held accountable. Ohio, for instance, already has gotten 1,000 hits in the Combined DNA Index System, matching DNA from old evidence kits to other crimes, which has led to 300 convictions, she said.

“I can’t wait for these serial offenders to have their number come up. It happens in every community and we have them, just like every other jurisdiction,” Orwall said. “Testing [of rape kits] is only the beginning. There’s so much we need to do to seek justice.”

Talk to us

More in Northwest

Amazon workers in Alabama get a do-over in union election

The NRLB says Amazon may have created the false impression that the company was the one conducting the election process.

Reagan Dunn to take on U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier in 8th District

The Republican is challenging incumbent Democrat Kim Schrier in a district which could include a slice of Snohomish County.

FILE - In this March 9, 2021, file photo, House members meet in the Statehouse, in Boise, Idaho. An Idaho law banning nearly all abortions would take effect if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that declared a nationwide right to abortion. The court with a 6-3 conservative majority on Wednesday, Dec. 1 starts hearing arguments over a Mississippi law that bans abortions after 15 weeks. (AP Photo/Keith Ridler, File)
Most Idaho abortions banned if Roe v. Wade is overturned

That would leave the nearest providers for people from Idaho in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and Colorado.

Northwest residents urged to stay alert as storms roll in

The big question is how communities that saw heavy damage earlier from the previous storm will fare.

Feds: Dams helped prevent more severe Skagit River flooding

The Army Corps of Engineers says flooding in Skagit County would have been catastrophic if not for the Ross and Upper Baker dams holding back the rush of rainwater.

Rear Adm. Christopher Sweeney, commander of Puget Sound-based Carrier Strike Group 11, in Bremerton on Nov. 23, 2021. (U.S. Navy/MC3 Justin McTaggart)
From Everett, this rear admiral commands a Navy strike group

Christopher Sweeney leads Carrier Strike Group 11, a force of aircraft and ships stretching from here to San Diego.

FILE - Floodwater inundates homes along a road on Nov. 17, 2021, in Sumas, Wash. Damages from flooding last week in northwest Washington's Whatcom County could reach as high as $50 million, officials said, as forecasters warn that multiple "atmospheric rivers" may drench the Pacific Northwest in coming days. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
State faces threat of more ‘atmospheric rivers’ and floods

More moisture is expected to bring up to 3 inches of rain in some areas hit by the recent flooding.

A portion of the Redistricting Commission-approved legislative map showing the 12th District, which would span the Cascade Range. (Washington State Redistricting Commission) 20211124
Proposed political map links cities from Monroe to Wenatchee

Highway 2 would unite communities on both sides of the Cascades in one legislative district. Here’s what else could change.

The Washington State House of Representatives convenes for floor session, Feb. 21, 2019.
Granite Falls representative joins lawsuit over House vax rule

Rep. Robert Sutherland objects to the COVID-19 vaccine because he had a severe reaction to a flu shot.

Most Read