‘We’re sorry we let you down.’ New Washington law aims to eliminate rape kit backlog
Washington state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, still remembers the day in 2014 that she toured a police evidence facility and saw stacks of white boxes on the shelves. She asked what they were and the answer shocked her. They were untested rape kits.
“I went into my car and I cried and I just thought all of these survivors assumed we had tested their kits,” Orwall recounted.
Back then, police and sheriff’s departments made the call on whether to send sexual assault kits to a crime lab to be tested. But bills sponsored by Orwall in 2015 and 2017 made some significant changes. They required the testing of all rape kits if the survivor agreed, established a statewide tracking system and created a task force to work on the issue. Despite those efforts, Washington’s backlog of untested kits continued to grow.
Currently, there are more than 10,000 untested sexual assault kits in Washington, according to the Washington State Patrol.
On Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee signed into law yet another measure designed to address the backlog. Orwall described the bill as the “big fix.” It sets a deadline of December 2021 for the state patrol to completely eliminate the backlog. Then, beginning in 2022, the patrol would have 45 days to test any new rape kits.
Lawmakers are expected to dedicate more than $10 million in the next state budget to fund this effort. That money would cover the cost of private labs to test older kits and pay for additional forensic scientists at the state crime labs. In addition, the state’s capital construction budget is expected to include money to match a federal grant for a new high-throughput lab in Vancouver that could test 2,000 kits a year.
“Not only does this help the current survivors, but it lets anyone ... that’s been sexually assaulted know they can come forward and that we’re going to take this seriously, we’re going to support them through this process,” Orwall said.
The Washington State Patrol crime lab in Vancouver is one of five labs across the state set up to test rape kits. At the lab, there’s a vault with a freezer behind a locked security door that holds evidence waiting to be tested. Most are sexual assault kits, some of which date back to the 1990s. The Vancouver lab gets anywhere from a handful to 100 untested kits a week.
“Basically if we don’t get the resources we need, we’re going to drown in sexual assault kits,” said Bruce Siggins, who manages the lab. “It’s that simple, they’ll just keep coming in faster than we can take them and work them and we’ll not ever catch up.”
The backlog has also put a strain on the Vancouver lab’s ability to accept additional cases, especially if they are property crimes or others that aren’t labeled high priority in its six-county service area.
“Some crimes we can’t look at because we just don’t have the time,” said Brad Dixon, a supervising forensic scientist in Vancouver. “We have to send them back or point them to a private lab.”
Siggins said the new high-throughput lab will be a critical part in eliminating the backlog and processing sexual assault kits more efficiently. The funding will allow Washington State Patrol to fully staff the lab with an additional eight forensic scientists, a lab technician, and a property and evidence custodian. Newer, high-tech machines and robotics will also enable staff to more quickly test multiple batches of kits.
The problem of untested rape kits has played out across the country in recent years and resulted in a national campaign called End the Backlog. Last year, Oregon announced it had cleared its backlog of nearly 5,000 rape kits. But Washington, with more than twice the number of untested kits, has struggled.
For victims, that means delayed justice. For rapists, it means the opportunity to keep victimizing. But once a kit is tested, a case that’s been stalled for years can suddenly move very quickly. That’s because the results are entered into the FBI’s national DNA database, known as CODIS. If there’s a match, police immediately have a suspect.
That’s what happened earlier this year in a case involving a 12-year-old runaway who was raped during Seattle’s Torchlight Parade in 2006. Her rape kit sat for 12 years. When it was finally tested, the DNA matched a registered sex offender in Florida.
“We tested it in December and in February there were cuffs on the guy,” said Capt. Monica Alexander of the Washington State Patrol. “It’s mind boggling to think about the opportunity we have here to stop crime in our communities.”
In addition to addressing the backlog, the new Washington law will also establish a set of rights for sexual assault survivors.
“It’s really the state standing up and apologizing,” Orwall said. “We’re sorry we let you down, but by moving this bill and taking the actions we’re taking, we’re going to make sure it never happens again.”