Sexual assault kits

Jeff Carl, director of the emergency department, talks Jan. 26 about the training is staff has undergone to handle sexual assault kits at St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls.

PAT SUTPHIN TIMES-NEWS

BOISE — A sexual assault kit-tracking system introduced one year ago offers a snapshot of the state’s progress in analyzing kits in 2017, including a backlog of previously untested kits from previous years.

A series of reforms enacted during recent legislative sessions established new standards for the processing of sexual assault kits, including laws requiring law enforcement agencies to submit kits for testing within 30 days and to keep kits as evidence for longer periods of time.

Additionally, a new statewide system introduced at the start of 2017 — the first of its kind in the U.S. — allows victims to track their kits online through the evidence examination and storage process. The goal of the tracking system, according to Idaho State Police, was to increase transparency for victims and provide better direction and tools to law enforcement throughout the process.

Between all these reforms, it’s more clear when to submit sexual assault kits for testing than in the past, Twin Falls Police Chief Craig Kingsbury said. “The tracking software, although it’s been a little bit of a learning curve, just kind of enhances the protocol.”

The Twin Falls Police Department sent in 18 new kits for testing in 2017, according to an ISP report published last week. Testing has been completed for 10 of those kits, and eight are currently in progress. The department has also logged one additional kit in the system that hasn’t been tested yet.

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Sexual assault kits

Doors to the evidence locker sit locked Jan. 26 at the Twin Falls Police Department in Twin Falls.

PAT SUTPHIN TIMES-NEWS

Meanwhile, dozens of years-old kits discovered on the shelves of the Twin Falls Police Department will soon be tested for the first time.

A 2016 audit of law enforcement agencies turned up hundreds of kits from agencies across the state that were never submitted to Idaho State Police Forensic Services for analysis.

Now, Twin Falls police will send 41 previously unsubmitted kits to the FBI for testing.

The state’s lab saw a 107 percent increase in its DNA testing workload in 2017, a combination of new sexual assault cases and older kits discovered in the audit. To help alleviate the state’s workload, the FBI will take on the bulk of older kits from cities across the state.

The unsubmitted kits from Twin Falls, dating as far back as 1999, are slated to be shipped to the FBI next February. But it’s likely that the FBI will move up that shipping date, said ISPFS director Matthew Gamette.

“If they don’t, I’m going to bring them into the state lab by 2018,” Gamette said. He said he hopes to have all unsubmitted kits tested by the end of the year.

But Gamette cautioned against jumping to conclusions about why a police department may not have sent a kit in for testing in 1999.

Up until recently, he said, the primary reason for testing a rape kit was to determine the identity of the perpetrator of an assault. In cases where there was no question of the alleged perpetrator — for example, if an accused rapist acknowledged that he had sex with his victim but claimed the encounter was consensual — a department may have seen no reason to submit a kit for testing.

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“As I look back on a lot of these cases, especially in Idaho, that seems to be more the case than, ‘We just didn’t feel like investigating it,’” Gamette said.

While Kingsbury couldn’t immediately confirm the exact reasons why the 42 kits discovered in the Twin Falls audit were never sent in, he said he suspected that this was the case for most of the unsubmitted kits.

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Sexual assault kits

Jeff Carl, director of the emergency department, holds a sexual assault kit Jan. 26 at St. Luke's Magic Valley Medical Center in Twin Falls. Each kit is sealed to prevent tampering.

PAT SUTPHIN TIMES-NEWS

Today, however, authorities have another important reason for cataloguing forensic evidence from a sexual assault: to add the DNA of perpetrators to a larger database that can help identify serial assaulters.

“The game has changed,” Gamette said. “If the victim says you can test their kit and if a crime occurred, then it needs to be tested.”

Kingsbury said he’s noticed a greater awareness of the importance of testing as many kits as possible in his department and others.

“I think that maybe we have learned a little bit, in the profession, that it is better to test more of these kits than what we were doing previously,” he said.

This legislative session could see more changes to sexual assault kit testing procedure in Idaho. Last week, Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise) introduced legislation that would stop hospitals from billing victims’ insurance for the cost of collecting evidence for the kit. “I’m really proud of the progress that the state of Idaho has made over the last few years on working toward being more victim-centered in these types of investigations,” Kingsbury said. “We still have a little work to do, but I think we’ve improved a lot over the past three years.”

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