AG’s office wins $3M federal grant to process backlogged sexual assault DNA evidence

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Photo courtesy Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education

It was announced earlier this month that the Attorney General’s Office won a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to inventory, test and help investigate the state’s backlog of sexual assault kits, which provide DNA evidence for sexual assault investigations.

The grant, part of the Bureau of Justice Assistance Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, will fund a team within the Attorney General’s Office dedicated to processing the backlogged sexual assault kits and training law enforcement. The three-year grant will end in September 2020.

“Sexual assault is a devastating crime that affects thousands of Washingtonians,” said Attorney General Bob Ferguson. “These sexual assault survivors deserve justice, and I intend to help them get it.”

A sexual assault kit is a collection of evidence gathered from a victim by a medical professional, usually a specially trained Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner. A crime lab then tests the evidence for DNA that will help law enforcement find a perpetrator. Generally, if a kit remains untested for more than 30 days, it becomes “backlogged.”

In 2015, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs asked local law enforcement agencies throughout Washington to estimate the number of backlogged sexual assault kits in their custody. This informal survey identified approximately 6,000 untested kits statewide. However, many agencies lack the resources needed to investigate these cases.

Using $1.5 million of the grant, the AGO will establish a Sexual Assault Kit Initiative team, including two new investigators who will work solely on the project. During the project’s first six months, these investigators will travel across the state to collect a detailed inventory of backlogged sexual assault kits. Once the inventory is complete, the investigators will help local law enforcement prioritize and submit the kits to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab.

The remaining $1.5 million of the AG’s grant will cover the cost of testing evidence at Washington State Patrol Crime Labs in Seattle, Tacoma, Marysville, Spokane, and Vancouver. These funds will be used to process up to 2,100 kits. Each kit costs about $680 to test, not including the cost of shipping or peer review, which is required for about 35 percent of kits.

Once the backlogged kits are tested, the AGO will support law enforcement as they use the newfound information to reopen cold cases. Throughout the project, the AGO will provide victim-centered trauma training to law enforcement agencies, prosecutors, and victim advocates.

State lawmakers passed legislation in 2015 and 2016 designed to help survivors of sexual assault find justice and improve the way the state handles sexual assault kits. One of the bills passed in 2015, sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, requires the testing of all sexual assault kits after July 2015.

“I commend Attorney General Ferguson for his leadership in obtaining these critical resources, which build on our work to seek justice and provide support for survivors of sexual assault, protect our communities, and hold offenders accountable,” Orwall said.

Assistant Attorney General Katharine Hemann will lead the new Sexual Assault Kit Initiative team, composed of Criminal Justice Division Chief Lana Weinmann, Chief Criminal Investigator Cloyd Steiger and two new investigators.

Victim advocates Antoinette Bonsignore and Erika Teschke assisted in the development of the program.



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