Federal grant to fund new project to obtain DNA of known offenders, identify serial criminals
OLYMPIA — Attorney General Bob Ferguson today announced that his office won an additional $2.5 million in federal grants to fund Washington’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) program, part of a statewide initiative to end Washington’s rape kit backlog.
Of the new funds, $1 million will fund a new effort to add DNA profiles of thousands of convicted offenders across Washington — court-ordered DNA tests that still haven’t been collected — to the national DNA evidence database. This new DNA information will make it more likely for a newly tested sexual assault kit to result in a “hit,” connecting the DNA evidence from the kit to a known offender. These hits are crucial to solving cold cases and identifying serial rapists.
The office will use the remaining $1.5 million to test backlogged kits, train law enforcement and hire additional personnel to support the SAKI team.
“This is an important step toward justice for sexual assault survivors,” Ferguson said. “The funding we’ve won today will help us to both continue to test backlogged evidence and start gathering DNA information on convicted criminals. The more information we can get on repeat offenders, the more cases we can solve.”
In 2017, the Attorney General’s Office won its first $3 million SAKI grant from the Department of Justice to begin efforts to end the backlog of sexual assault kits. The office has designated half of the total $3 million grant to pay for testing backlogged kits, the maximum amount allowed under the grant. 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 first grant also enabled the office to:
- create its own SAKI team;
- complete comprehensive statewide inventories of both unsubmitted and unreported sexual assault kits;
- create the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Multidisciplinary Team, bringing together Attorney General’s Office staff and agencies throughout the state to consult on best practices and enhance communication between agencies involved in investigations; and
- conduct training 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.
Court-ordered DNA samples
When a person is convicted of a crime, such as sexual assault, they are sometimes ordered by the court to provide DNA samples for the national DNA evidence database, known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System).
Attorney General’s Office research estimates more than 30,000 felony offenders across Washington were ordered to provide a DNA sample at sentencing pursuant to state law, but such samples were never collected from them, thus depriving CODIS of tens of thousands of DNA profiles that should be in the database and available for comparison to profiles developed from sexual assault kits. The new SAKI grant provides funding for investigators who will find information on offenders who have yet to provide a court-ordered DNA sample.
Once that DNA is entered into CODIS, it can be used to identify DNA samples collected as evidence in other crimes, like the samples found in sexual assault kits. Adding known offenders’ DNA profiles to the database helps law enforcement solve other cases that the offender has committed.
The new grant will fund efforts to add these DNA profiles to the database, which not only helps law enforcement solve individual crimes — it can also help identify serial rapists, link cases across the country, shed new light on cold cases and provide answers to crime victims and their families.
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 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 second type of backlog occurs in crime lab facilities, when sexual assault kits have been submitted to the lab, 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 Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Burien, the Legislature gave funds to the Crime Lab to reduce the backlog. In 2019, the Legislature, again led by Rep. Orwall, authorized funding for the construction of a high throughput DNA lab in Vancouver that when completed will allow the Crime Lab to process a higher volume of DNA cases at quicker rates.
According to the Washington State Patrol, since 2015, about 5,100 backlogged kits have been submitted to the Crime Lab using this legislative funding and funding from the SAKI grant program. Of those kits, about 3,100 have been tested and 385 are currently being tested.
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 CODIS.
Once the kits are tested, local law enforcement can use DNA to reopen cold cases. The AGO can offer investigative assistance to local law enforcement agencies. 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. However, the AGO can assist local law enforcement with their investigations if a law enforcement agency requests it.
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.
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