On Tuesday, Montana’s new Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force meets to talk about so-called “rape kits.” Those are boxes of evidence gathered from sexual assault victims to potentially be used in prosecuting their attackers.
The Task Force was established by Montana Attorney General Tim Fox in November to review how the evidence kits in the state are handled and how many of them have gone untested.
Fox says police and prosecutors across the country are growing concerned about untested evidence kits.
Yellowstone County Attorney Mary Barry is a member of the task force. She says getting the physical evidence contained in a completed test kit isn’t easy on sexual assault victims, but she says it can be incredibly valuable.
“As traumatic as it is, probably, to go into that room and have you be examined," Barry said, "if I can get my hands on that evidence it can make the case.”
Sexual assault evidence kits require a medical exam that takes at least 2 hours, sometimes going 6 or 7 hours, depending on the patient's mental condition. Sexual assault cases are really hard to prove, Barry says. She never guarantees a winning case to the people, mostly women, she represents. So getting any evidence at all is really important.
Deb Bakke is the client care director at the Friendship Center, a domestic violence and sexual assault support center in Helena. She says the process of reporting sexual abuse and providing testimony can be really overwhelming for a victim.
“When something like this happens to a victim, if they have never had exposure to this system, it’s daunting. And if you are emotionally fragile it's hard to do, it's hard to navigate the system,” she says.
Rape kits are a victim's first contribution of evidence. It's a cardboard box of swabs, scrapings and the victim's initial account of what happened.
If that box is just sitting on a shelf, important evidence like DNA or names or descriptions of assailants can’t help police and prosecutors make connections in other cases and maybe prevent future attacks.
Yellowstone County Attorney Mary Barry:
“My hope is, a couple things. Clean up the evidence, let's not have it there if we don’t need it. It would also be so great if through this process some of those kits are looked at and realized, hey, that one should have been set off," Barry said. "And then we go catch a rapist, catch a molester. But I think really, why leave things uncertain.”
Barry doesn't know how many untested kits there are, but she expects the Attorney General's task force is meant to get ahead of a problem that other states are already seeing. A few years ago the Texas Tribune reported 20,000 untested kits in Texas police stations.
Tens of thousands of untested kits have also been found in Michigan and Tennessee.
These kits can remain untested and in storage for a number or reasons. If an alleged attacker doesn’t deny touching or having sex with the victim, then the DNA evidence in the kit isn’t very useful, because it becomes a debate over consent.
In Montana, untested rape kits can be found in police departments across the state.
In the Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office, evidence technician Chad Day walks down a hall and into an evidence room. He opens a small fridge, like the kind you might find in a college dorm room.
“We have a couple other fridges and that sort of thing. But they’re just stored. And as you can see, this one is full," Day said. "We’re going to have somebody go through, for the task force, go through and catalog everything. There are quite a few. I would guess there are probably 50 or so.”
The 50 or so are just the ones in the office Day works in.
If kits are tested they are sent to the state crime lab in Missoula. Those that aren’t stay in the office that handled the case.
Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office Sergeant Shane Hildenstab says there are other reasons why kits remain sitting on shelves in police departments. Attorneys sometimes choose to not prosecute, and the evidence isn’t used.
“It could have originally been reported and later recanted, or determined that the victim wasn’t necessary being honest at the time," Hildenstab said. "So the crime actually didn’t happen and they had admitted to falsifying the information.”
The National Sexual Violence Resource Center says falsely reported sexual assaults happen between 2 and 10 percent of the time.
A U.S. Department of Justice report from the early 2000s found that more than 60 percent of rapes aren’t reported to police at all.
The most common reason for not reporting rape was that the crime was a personal matter.
Other reasons included fear of retribution, a victim’s desire to protect the offender, and police bias.
The Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force meets in Helena on Tuesday. It will talk about programs that hold onto kits when victims don't want to immediately report the crime, the first count of untested kits in the state, how other states have dealt with this issue and victim considerations while going through this process.