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Task Force To Examine Handling Of Sexual Assault Evidence Kits In Montana

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox.
Montana DOJ
Montana Attorney General Tim Fox

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox says there’s too much we don’t know about sexual assault evidence kits that are never submitted to the state crime lab.

"We want to find out just how many kits there are out there that have not been sent to the crime lab for analysis, why they weren’t sent, and then look at an overall situation to determine whether or not there’s anything that should be done going forward.”

Fox this week launched a 9-member Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force to get some answers to these questions.

These forensic exam kits collect and store physical evidence in the wake of a sexual assault. Sometimes law enforcement investigators request a victim get examined for physical evidence of an assault. Sometimes victims themselves consent to the exam.

But, as Yellowstone County Attorney Mary Barry points out, these so-called “rape kits” aren’t always submitted for further analysis. There can be legitimate reasons for that.

"If we legally have the ability to. If it’s even worth our effort to do so, because depending on how long a kit has sat out there, the statute of limitations for a crime may have passed," Barry says. "There also may be case facts that we don’t even need to test the kit.”

Barry primarily prosecutes sex crimes in Yellowstone County and is a member of the new Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force.

"The whole purpose of getting this task force together is there’s a nationwide growing concern about testing kits — obviously in jurisdictions much larger than Montana. It hasn’t become a problem here yet, but my understanding is that the governor’s office wants to get a head start on a problem that seems to be growing around the nation.”

Montana Attorney General Fox says law enforcement at all levels are studying the need for established, uniform evidence kit analysis protocols.

"Notwithstanding decisions not to prosecute, et cetera. As you might imagine there are many, many issues involved in this; there’s personal privacy issues, there’s funding issues perhaps. Again, we’d like to have a good understanding of what we have here in Montana and if there are any issues or problems, come up with a Montana home-grown solution,” Fox says.

Robin Turner of the Montana Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence is another task force member. She wants sexual assault survivors to be at the forefront of this policy inventory.

"Well, it’s of course certainly important that the voice of the victim be present at the table. Victim advocacy programs have been working on this issue for a really long time through their day-to-day work with survivors.”

Montana Attorney General Tim Fox agrees and says this effort to determine how many unsubmitted evidence kits exist is one piece of a comprehensive and renewed effort to address sexual assault in Montana. He predicts the task force, which also includes two state legislators — one Democrat and one Republican, law enforcement officials, a yet-to-be determined sexual assault nurse/examiner and a college campus representative, will have more answers and maybe some recommendations by early to mid 2016.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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