A year ago, Oregon officials sent 2,800 untested rape kits — some from cases more than a decade old — to a Utah laboratory because the state couldn't handle them all. About half of those have now been processed, but the state is now dealing with a new backlog of untested kits.
In fact, the number of untested new kits has quadrupled in the past two years.
As of April, Oregon State Police reported a backlog of 884 newly submitted sexual assault forensic evidence kits, or SAFE kits, up from 216 in January 2016, according to OSP SAFE kit summaries.
"I don’t know why it's increasing, but agencies are obviously submitting more," said Bill Fugate,
OSP public information officer.
Katie Suver, the Marion County Deputy District Attorney, said the increase is explained by a new state law requiring testing of all untested SAFE kits in the state, which includes old, untested kits that have been shelved in law enforcement agencies.
A USA TODAY Network investigation in 2015 found that at least 70,000 untested rape kits were shelved throughout the country, sparking at least 20 states to pursue reforms in law enforcement's handling of processing rape kits.
In Oregon, Senate Bill 1571, also known as Melissa's Law, unanimously passed in the Oregon Legislature during the 2016 session, mandating state crime labs to process the old backlog.
As part of Melissa's Law, $1.5 million was allocated to hire nine crime lab analysts at the Oregon state crime lab.
Oregon State Police has since filled all nine positions, but training for the new team could take until the end of the year, said Bill Fugate, OSP public information officer.
SB 1571 paid for nine crime analyst positions:
- Portland lab: One forensic laboratory specialist, one DNA supervisor, one biology processing analyst, four DNA analysts
- Bend lab: One biology processing analyst
- Central Point lab: one biology processing analyst
Two additional positions were funded through legislation separate from Melissa's Law, which allowed for the hiring of one biology processing analyst and one DNA analyst for the Portland laboratory.
The last analysts are expected to complete their training on December 31 of this year.
"The new funding is helpful but we'll know the benefits when we start gaining ground," Fugate said. "That extra funding hasn't shown an effect yet."
2,800 untested rape kits
With the help of grants, a number of Oregon law enforcement agencies and district attorney's offices sent 2,800 untested SAFE kits to a Utah laboratory for testing in April 2016, including the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, Portland Police Bureau, Oregon State Police, Marion County District Attorney's Office and Lane District Attorney's Office.
he Marion County District Attorney's Office sent hundreds as part of the shipment, with at least 50 percent of those having been tested as of May 2017, Suver said.
Suver reviews every kit tested by reviewing cases where a defendant was prosecuted, seeing if a SAFE kit exonerates a defendant who was convicted of a crime, and ensuring both the victim and the defendant are provided with the SAFE kit report.
"I have not yet found a case where there was a conviction and the SAFE kit exonerated a defendant or would have changed the manner of prosecuting the defendant," Suver said. 'We're making sure we're not missing anything."
She has reviewed dozens of cases so far that now have tested SAFE kits. She hopes to review all of the cases with newly tested kits by the end of the year.
A majority of the untested SAFE kits in Marion County are cases where both the victim and defendant agree that a sexual act took place, but the pair disagrees on the degree of consent.
Suver said as an example, a number of these cases may reflect when a victim reports a sexual assault occurred, a hospital collects evidence in a SAFE exam, law enforcement takes a report, the victim identifies a suspect, the suspect acknowledges to police that they had intercourse, but the suspect claims the activity was consensual.
"If both parties agree that sex occurred, the district attorney's office and police wouldn't see the value in testing," Suver said. "That results in a lot of the backlog of SAFE kits."
But Suver said the value in enacting Melissa's Law lies in those unsolved sexual assault cases, where the perpetrator may commit sexual assaults more than one time against more than one victim.
While the majority of the region's untested SAFE kits involve cases where the victim and suspect know each other, Patricia Kenyon
said victims are still surprised at the lengthy testing period.
"We tell them that they may not hear about results for several weeks," said Kenyon, a certified sexual assault nurse examiner and a supervisor at Sarah's Place,
an Albany sexual assault clinic. "They are surprised, but I have not heard anybody say that they're concerned. Just surprised."
Roughly 130 patients have visited the clinic and have sought a SAFE kit in the past 10 months.
"If even one of these cases out of the hundreds comes up where we are able to prosecute, something that we were not able to do before, then that’s a victory," Suver said. "There will be action if it can be legally taken."
So far, Multnomah County has been able to arrest a 63-year-old man in connection with a sexual assault investigation that began in 2011. Clint Curtis Williams was arrested after his DNA profile was a positive hit on an existing CODIS profile. He is currently in Multnomah County Jail on first-degree rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration and sexual abuse charges. He is also facing a charge for failing to register as a sex offender.
How many kits have been processed so far?
Amity Girt, the Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney, said roughly 1,432 of the 2,800 rape kits sent to a private Utah laboratory last year have been analyzed among Multnomah, Marion and Lane counties.
The nearly $2 million grant funding the testing, which was granted by the New York County District Attorney's Office, was planned to run until September 2017 but has been extended to September 2018.
"The lab is pretty saturated, so we're predicting it will take a bit longer," Girt said. "No additional funding was rewarded, just more time to spend the money."
Girt said 1,171 kits from Multnomah County have been tested, 163 kits from Lane County have been tested and 98 kits from Marion County have been tested.
Girt said the lab has first tackled kits sent from Portland Police Bureau, which comprise the majority of the kits sent to Utah, and then sprinkles in the analysis of other agencies that requested fewer kits.
Testing on the remaining kits is expected to be complete by January 2018, Girt said.
Girt acts as the project prosecutor who reviews every kit returned to Multnomah County and analyzes cases along with a full-time advocate and a full-time forensic consultant. The team coordinates with Sexual Assault Kit Initiative team, or SAKI team, to review up to 10 cases a week. The pair of teams has met on a weekly basis for the past year.
"We pull police reports and whatever information is available about what originally happened, we discuss what the lab results mean in conjunction with that particular case," Girt said.
Girt said her team has seen a wide variety of cases and reasons why kits weren't tested.
The team has reviewed cases that were adjudicated already, where the victim had initially reached out to law enforcement but then ultimately decided not to go forward with the case; where the victim and suspect disagree on whether the contact was consensual, and where the perpetrator is listed as unknown to the victim.
"It really doesn't matter the reason because all of these kits could contain valuable information, and that was contributing to the backlog," Girt said.
What happens when the grant money runs out?
When the grant ends in September 2018, Girt said, Multnomah County will continue reviewing results of kits, but the testing process may change.
She said the county will still be in the process of reviewing tested kits long after the grant dries up due to the high numbers of kits, but said that requires infrastructure. Multnomah County has three units that handle sex assaults including the sex crimes unit, domestic abuse unit and child abuse unit.
"I don't know how that's going to affect how many more investigations there will be," Girt said. "That will be interesting to track. That has yet to be seen."
Oregon State Police SAFE kit backlog by month in 2016
218 - January 2016
332 - February 2016
422 - March 2016
513 - April 2016
599 - May 2016
615 - June 2016
613 - July 2016
622 - August 2016
653 - September 2016
656 - October 2016
705 - November 2016
741 - December 2016
804 - January 2017
817 - February 2017
909 - March 2017
884 - April 2017
Note: Information compiled by Oregon State Police 2016, 2017 SAFE Kit Summaries