Looking at how understaffed crime labs prioritize their rape testing

Image result for rape kit
MISSOULA –An investigation by the Montana Board of Crime Control uncovers more than 1,400 sexual assault kits containing victims DNA have gone untested, sitting forgotten in evidence rooms for years.

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A $2 million grant awarded to the Montana Department of Justice will test every one of these kits, as part of a multi-agency approach to better handle sexual assault cases in Montana.

It costs $900 to test each kit and the grant will cover 1,100 of the untested kits.

The FBI will also test 300 kits for free.

A 15-page report detailing the investigation found four main reasons kits were not being submitted: there was not enough evidence; the victim did not cooperate, chose not to pursue or recanted; or the prosecution declined; or the reason is unknown.

But what other speed bumps could be holding these kits up?

In some counties the concern is wait time from the Montana State Crime Lab, already stretched thin with a high number of cases.

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen almost a doubling of cases submitted to the crime lab and we’ve had a relatively flat staff, so we are struggling right now,” Crime Lab Administrator Phil Kinsey said. “We are burdened, but the analysts are doing their best to keep up with what we have to get done, we’re not missing any court dates or anything like that, but we are very, very busy.”

Jason Marks with the Missoula County Attorney’s Office says they prioritize what evidence to submit as the wait to get results back can take weeks or even months.

“The thought had been it was important to prioritize those cases where the DNA would tell us something we needed to know to prosecute a case,” Marks said.

“The example is, if the victim and the suspect both agree that sexual intercourse took place, he was the one involved, there wouldn’t be anything from the rape kit that would tell us more, so the detective would have made the decision not to send it in so as not to tie up lab resources.”

With the Crime Lab already stretched thin, the kits will be outsourced to one of three out-of-state labs.

Moving forward, a new protocol will be put in place requiring all sexual assault kits to be submitted to the crime lab and tested.

Kinsey says he is confident his staff can handle these new cases and get evidence returned to the county as soon as it is possible.

About csidds

Dr. Michael Bowers is a long time forensic consultant in the US and international court systems.
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