First round of funds will test more than 1,000 kits
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today committed $750,000 in grant funds to test unsubmitted sexual assault kits as part of his Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).
“Every sexual assault kit is a story that needs to be told,” Ferguson said. “Testing the kits not only honors to the courage of survivors, but also identifies serial offenders who might otherwise go free.”
Because the Washington State Patrol is responsible for all law enforcement DNA testing in Washington State, the State Patrol will send kits to an outside lab for testing, then seek reimbursement from the Attorney General’s Office grant funds The Attorney General’s Office estimates that approximately 1,150 kits will be tested with this $750,000.
Testing has already started using legislative funding. Once that funding is exhausted, the State Patrol can begin seeking reimbursement from the federal grant funds. Federal law prohibits replacing state funds with federal funds.
If the testing results in DNA matches, the Attorney General’s Office will track those cases.
The Attorney General’s Office does not have a direct role in collecting or testing sexual assault kits. Recognizing the need to end the backlog, Ferguson applied for a Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Grant from the Department of Justice in April 2017.
The Department of Justice awarded the Attorney General’s Office $750,000 in October 2017, and the office received the funds in April 2018. The first round of funding has been partially used to create the Attorney General’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Team, which consists of an Assistant Attorney General and two investigators, and to conduct a statewide inventory of unsubmitted sexual assault kits.
To date, Ferguson’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Team has:
- Completed a comprehensive statewide inventory of unsubmitted sexual assault kits in Washington, finding 6,725 kits that, at that time, had not yet been submitted for lab testing by local law enforcement agencies;
- Completed a comprehensive statewide inventory of unreported sexual assault kits, finding 632 kits where survivors have not made a report to law enforcement;
- Created a Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Multidisciplinary Team involving Attorney General’s Office staff and agencies throughout the state to consult on best practices and enhance communication between agencies involved in investigations; and
- Conducted a two-day sexual assault investigations workshop for professionals working in the field of sexual assault response, including law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates and sexual assault nurse examiners, in order to improve law enforcement’s response to survivors of sexual assault. The Attorney General’s Office will offer the training again in April.
This brings the total funds received by the office to $1.5 million. The Attorney General’s Office obtained this second round of funding after Department of Justice certified that Ferguson’s Sexual Assault Kit team successfully completed inventories of the state’s unsubmitted and unreported kits.
The office will seek another $1.5 million after the completion of the final inventory phase, which will log partially tested kits. These are kits that have been tested under an outdated methodology that cannot be submitted to the federal database, or have only undergone an initial screening, rather than full DNA testing.
A sexual assault kit is a collection of evidence gathered from a survivor by a medical professional, usually a specially trained sexual assault nurse examiner. A crime lab then tests the evidence for DNA that could help law enforcement find a perpetrator.
There are two types of sexual assault kit backlogs in Washington state and across the country. The first is the “unsubmitted” sexual assault kit backlog, which consists of kits that sit in a law enforcement evidence storage facility because a DNA analysis was never requested. The funds announced today will be devoted to Washington’s unsubmitted kit backlog.
The second type of backlog occurs in crime lab facilities, and consists of “backlogged” sexual assault kits that have been submitted, but have not yet been tested.
The State of Washington has made progress on processing its backlog of sexual assault kits over the past several years, but additional work remains. In 2015, led by Representative Tina Orwall (D-Burien), the Legislature gave funds to the Crime Lab to reduce the backlog.
According to the Washington State Patrol, since 2015, more than 4,300 backlogged kits have been submitted to the Crime Lab using this legislative funding. Of those kits, about 2,300 have been tested and about 2,000 are currently in the testing process.
Testing backlogged kits has already provided new information for cold cases. In one case, a suspect was charged with child rape more than 10 years after the crime, thanks to the results of a backlogged rape kit.
In Washington state, the State Patrol Crime Lab oversees the testing of all of the state’s DNA evidence. The Crime Lab is outsourcing the sexual assault kits to a private lab to complete the DNA testing. The Crime Lab must conduct a peer review of all evidence tested by outside labs and is the only agency permitted to upload DNA profiles into the national forensic DNA database, known as CODIS.
Once the kits are tested, local law enforcement can use DNA to reopen cold cases. The AGO will offer investigative assistance to local law enforcement agencies, that, under state law, have the authority to investigate and charge criminal cases. In Washington state, the Attorney General only has authority to initiate criminal investigations after receiving a referral from a county prosecuting attorney or the Governor. Consequently, the AGO has no jurisdiction over potential cold cases unless assistance is requested by a local law enforcement agency.
Testing these kits will identify serial rapists, link cases across the country, provide critical links that could solve homicide cases and provide answers to victims and their families. Throughout the project, the AGO will host victim-centered trauma training around the state for law enforcement agencies, prosecutors and victim advocates.
In January, the AGO conducted a two-day sexual assault investigations workshop for professionals working in the field of sexual assault response, including law enforcement, prosecutors, advocates and sexual assault nurse examiners. The office will offer the training again in April.
More information on the ongoing project is available on the Attorney General's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative webpage.
The Office of the Attorney General is the chief legal office for the state of Washington with attorneys and staff in 27 divisions across the state providing legal services to roughly 200 state agencies, boards and commissions. Visit www.atg.wa.gov to learn more.
Brionna Aho, Communications Director, (360) 753-2727; Brionna.firstname.lastname@example.org