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Utah to hire private labs to analyze stockpiled rape kits

Published June 18, 2014 6:13 pm

Crime • Evidence, which the state lab wasn't able to process, may help solve hundreds of sexual assaults.
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For years, Utah law enforcement agencies have faced roadblocks to processing hundreds, if not thousands, of backlogged rape kits — the state crime lab was underfunded and understaffed.

Now lawmakers have come up with a stopgap solution: $750,000 for private laboratories to analyze rape kits.

The Utah Department of Public Safety, which oversees the state lab, soon will issue a "request for proposal" (RFP) seeking private firms capable of the work. A contract should be issued before year's end, said lab Director Jay Henry.

Advocates argue rape kits — containing potential evidence in sex assaults — that sit unanalyzed in police storage are a travesty that denies justice to victims.

Rough estimates peg the number of unprocessed kits at 1,000 to 2,000 statewide. The Salt Lake City Police Department has 788.

After reported sex assault, evidence is collected from the victim by specially trained nurses and locked in a rape kit, also known as a "Code R" kit. Among other things, the evidence could contain DNA.

The backlog caught public attention in Salt Lake City earlier this year, when the City Council asked Police Chief Chris Burbank why his department had shelved or destroyed 79 percent of its rape kits between 2003 and 2011.

Burbank maintained that his department spared no resources when seeking rape perpetrators. He pointed to many instances when processing rape kits was unnecessary, particularly when the perpetrator already had been identified.

He added that the state crime lab was slow to process the kits when they were submitted. And, not least, he said processing the evidence was expensive — about $1,100 per kit.

On Wednesday, representatives of an ad hoc working group told the Legislature's Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice lnterim Committee that all rape kits should be processed so that DNA from the assaults could be added to a national database called the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Donna Kelly, who also is a member of the Utah Prosecution Council, cited evidence from processed backlogs of Code R kits in Detroit, New Orleans, Texas and Ohio that led to a sharp increase in rape prosecutions.

She further noted that many sexual assaults are committed by serial rapists. Even though a rape kit may not help bring charges in a specific case, the evidence — when entered on the criminal DNA database — can lead to convictions in future criminal prosecutions.

"This can bring more perpetrators to justice," she said.

Sen. Daniel Thatcher, R-West Valley City, asked whether it was necessary to process all the rape kits.

Thatcher said state crime lab officials had testified before his committee four months ago that there was not a single kit with evidentiary value that was not being processed.

Henry confirmed that there were kits that hadn't been processed because of guilty pleas, lack of a strong case or because accusations had been recanted, but that some law enforcement agencies were re-evaluating the kits to make sure there were no oversights.

Thatcher said his committee appropriated the $750,000 because the state crime lab said that was the amount necessary to process all the kits, even though it might not be necessary to process all of them.

"If there is a single kit with evidentiary value that is not being processed, that is absolutely, completely unacceptable, and there is no excuse for that not being funded," Thatcher said. "If that is the case, we will fix it. We need to know, is this a legitimate backlog of evidence? ... I don't want to spend limited valuable resources for an issue that is merely perception."

But Woods Cross Police Chief Greg Butler, also a member of the working group, told the committee that processing rape kits is best for victims — they expect it to happen — and for investigators.

"Getting these kits processed and getting them on [the database]," he said, "provides us with an investigative tool."

Utah Democratic Party Chairman Peter Corroon pounced on Thatcher's comments. "These victims have endured a terrible sexual assault, and then had to submit themselves to an incredibly invasive process and exam," Corroon said in a news release. "The Legislature's job is not to prioritize these cases, and these victims. All sexual-assault kits have evidentiary value, because all sexual-assault victims have value."

Nonetheless, a Burbank spokesman said in an interview Wednesday afternoon that while it would be helpful to have a fast turnaround for rape-kit analyses, sending all kits in for processing could pose problems.

Among them, said Detective Cody Lougy, is when an alleged perpetrator contends that the sex in question was consensual and no charges are filed.

"Here is a guy who's never been convicted of a crime," Lougy said, "and we're putting him in a database."

Lougy added that although $750,000 seemed like a lot of money, it would cover the cost of only about 600 rape kits. "I would hate for us to burn through all that money on a kind of fishing expedition."





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