Attorney General Tim Fox said Tuesday there are 1,400 untested sexual assault evidence kits sitting in law enforcement refrigerators around Montana. The announcement came as a special task force Fox appointed last fall met for the first time at the capitol.
The Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Task Force is supposed to come up with recommendations for what to do with these untested kits. Untested so-called “rape kits” have become a nationwide concern in recent years.
Attorney General Tim Fox:
"We need to do more. We need to make sure our statutes aren’t antiquated, that victim’s rights are protected and that the accused's rights are protected as well."
Rape kits stay with the local law enforcement office handling the assault cases until local officials choose to submit them for evidence testing at the state crime lab in Missoula. Which doesn’t always happen.
Montana’s Department of Justice says some untested kits being stored by local police date back to 1995, when five rape kits were received but not sent to the crime lab.
Last year, 112 rape kits were received and not forwarded to the crime lab for analysis.
The Department of Justice says the top reasons kits don’t get submitted for testing include: a victim not cooperating; choosing not to pursue prosecution, or a victim recanting their story. Sometimes the assault was an issue of consent, meaning the DNA wouldn’t really help a prosecution. Other times the kits were not submitted because there was no sign of sexual contact in the kit, or the evidence didn’t show something criminal. Some kits are still in storage because assault cases are ongoing.
"Between a third and half of the cases we get are related to sex crimes."
That’s Phil Kinsey, an administrator at the state crime lab.
"For those sex assault evidence kits, those little boxes of envelopes, of swabs and nail clippings and hair cuttings and such, it takes about a half day to process in that first step."
When cases are more complicated, and more evidence is brought in, searching for evidence becomes even more time consuming. Kinsey says it can take a full day to search a bed comforter for DNA evidence.
There are six people who work in the forensic biology section of the crime lab who handle these evidence kits.
In 2015, the crime lab processed all 182 evidence kits it received from local law enforcement agencies. That was up from 167 kits in 2014, and 109 the prior year. Kinsey says the lab has been able to keep up with the number of kits it's receiving, so far.
"As of a couple years ago it was pretty easy to say we’re adequately staffed, but with these last couple years of increased submissions, they’re pedaling faster to keep up but they don’t know how long they can keep pedaling this fast," says Kinsey.
The exact reason for the increase number of sexual assault cases isn’t certain, but the task force generally pinned it to more awareness about these kinds of crimes in the state and more people being willing to report them.
The task force talked about applying for grants through the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative to fund more staff and give them the tools they need to deal with incoming kits and processing old ones.
Last year, the federal grant awarded more than $30 million to 20 states and local law enforcement agencies. Montana could receive up to $2 million through the grant. The application is due in early May.
Task force member Christy Clark said it’s important that the state keeps victims in mind as it begins dealing with these old evidence kits.
"I just want to allow people to have closure if they want closure. And I think that if we go back and dig through the refrigerators and say, ‘here’s your evidence and we’re going to send it in,’ it reopens all that again for a victim. And I just think we have to be really conscientious of what we doing to people’s lives. I’m just looking at this as 'this is a box and it’s in a refrigerator somewhere and we have to deal with it'. But these are real people; these are real people that have real trauma."
No major decisions were made by the task force Tuesday. But they agreed to gather again soon and come up with a plan to submit for a grant application.
In addition to looking for more funding to deal with the backlogged kits, the task force will likely come up with a recommendation to the legislature for a law that could further prevent rape kits from piling up across the state.