Slowly, methodically, Washington is clearing a backlog of untested rape evidence kits. But still there is much to do to ensure justice for victims of sexual assault and punish offenders for their crimes.
To date, 3,861 of the 9,756 backlogged older kits have been sent for testing, said state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, in an interview last week. Of those, 1,180 have been entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, generating 420 hits. The long-latent evidence has identified serial rapists and helped lead to charges in several cases, including the 2006 assault of a Seattle girl.
The state has contracted with two external labs, which are able to process about 300 kits each month, said Orwall, co-chair of the Washington Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Best Practices Advisory Group. A new high-production Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Vancouver should be functional by June 2020, and all old untested kits are expected to be processed by the end of the following year. After that, the backlog should be a thing of the past.
But, testing rape evidence kits is just one step toward ensuring a consistently compassionate and professional response to reports of sexual assault.
In its most recent annual report to the governor and legislature, submitted this month, the advisory group recommends that lawmakers address long-term storage needs for submitted kits and allocate resources for cold-case teams to investigate and prosecute the alleged assaults. Other recommendations include developing standard protocols for victim-advocacy service in hospitals, and mandating storage of kits and other potential evidence from unreported sexual assaults for at least 20 years.
Orwall’s leadership has been invaluable. She plans to continue exploring legal and procedural best practices, making sure law enforcement is using all possible investigatory tools. She stressed the importance of communicating these changes to the public to build assault victims’ confidence in the system and ensure survivors know about their rights and the resources available to them.
As much as the physical processing of untested rape kits, these important changes will help transform a system that has too often dismissed or diminished these heinous crimes. The casual disregard that persisted for too long cannot be tolerated in Washington or any other state.