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As state officials continue to work to clear years of backlog of untested rape kits, a Utah lawmaker says she will present a bill this legislative session that would mandate the testing of every sex-assault kit.
Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, announced at a town hall meeting Tuesday that she is working to draft legislation that will require all forensic kits taken after a sexual assault to be tested for DNA by the state crime lab.
"Victims deserve to get their results in a timely manner," she said. "But in order to do that, we have to ensure that law enforcement has the proper tools."
Romero hosted the panel at the Salt Lake City Library's Marmalade Branch to update the public about progress the state made in testing the 2,700 kits that have piled up over the years. Jay Henry, the crime lab's director, said Tuesday that less than half of those kits 1,300 have been tested.
In the past few years, lawmakers have slotted about $3 million for the state crime lab to get supplies, technology, new staff members and a contract with a private lab to chip away at the backlog of cases. The state also received $1.4 million in a national grant to clear the backlog in 2015.
The pile-up of untested, unsubmitted kits is expected to be cleared by summer 2018, Henry said Tuesday. But as his 11 DNA analysts work to catch up on past cases, he said, they are receiving a crushing number of new cases waiting for analysis. In 2009, the state crime lab had 306 cases total, of any crime, submitted for DNA testing. This year, the lab has received about 1,200 cases ready to be tested.
The crime lab still needs more resources, he said.
"How much is it going to take to really fund the laboratory?" Henry said. "It could be several million dollars to really do it correctly. We could be looking at something that high."
Romero couldn't say how much money she will seek to fund her potential law the legislation is being drafted, she said. Overall, she said, the bill would outline how a rape kit should be processed, fund law-enforcement training and address some concerns, such as privacy issues, if the victim does not want to have the samples tested.
She urged those in attendance to talk to their elected officials about her proposed bill.
"Let them know this is an important issue and this is a crisis," Romero said. "[Legislators] are dealing with homelessness right now, we're also talking about public education but we need to let my colleagues know this is a high priority."
Research released earlier this year by Julie Valentine, a forensic nurse and Brigham Young University associate professor, showed that most rape kits completed from 2010 to 2013 were never submitted to the crime lab by law enforcement. Of the 1,874 kits she tracked, 38 percent had been submitted, she told the Salt Lake City audience Tuesday night. In five of the cases that she followed, Valentine said DNA testing showed that the suspect was not the assailant.
"Testing the DNA is important for justice," she said. "It helps us to know more about the case. It's using science to help us establish justice. It's also just one piece of the puzzle. We can't just say, Submit all sex-assault kits and we're done. It's just one piece. We need more resources and funding."
Critics of mandatory testing say the DNA results are not helpful if the assailant is not a stranger to the person who reported the assault, or if both parties acknowledge that they had sex but disagree on whether it was consensual.
West Jordan police Chief Doug Diamond said Tuesday that he was one of those skeptics but now he supports the efforts to make sexual-assault-kit testing mandatory in every case.
Diamond said he once thought that testing all rape kits would tie up limited resources at the crime lab. But after learning of a case in which a truck driver raped women in four states and was caught thanks to a national DNA database Diamond said he began to realize the value of the DNA.
"I can see the need to tie some of these cases together," he said, "so we can get some of these serial rapists that are not being held accountable. ... I changed my mind."