SALEM, Ore. -- Six months after lawmakers passed legislation to speed up testing of sexual assault evidence kits, the Oregon State Police is still figuring out how to cut through the backlog. What's more, a growing number of rape kits are streaming into state law enforcement agencies, highlighting the need for clear prioritization of which kits should be tested first.
The problem is not just a local one. A USA Today investigation found that tens of thousands of rape kits go untested nationwide, leaving some sexual assault victims feeling robbed of justice.
Oregon's legislation is called Melissa's Law, named in honor of Melissa Bittler, a Portland teen attacked and murdered in 2001 by a serial rapist. At the time, two rape kits from other teens attacked by the same rapist sat untested in a Portland Police Bureau evidence locker.
When Melissa's Law passed this year, nearly 5,000 untested rape kits were sitting in evidence lockers and crime labs around the state. Hundreds went untested in Salem, thousands in Portland. For comparison, about 6,000 untested kits were found in Washington, 9,000 in California and 4,300 in Nevada.
The evidence is collected at hospitals through an invasive exam after someone says they've been a victim of a sexual assault. The kits contain biological samples that can be tested for DNA and matched to suspected attackers, or used to back up testimony in court.
Since Oregon's backlog was revealed, several hundred kits from Multnomah, Marion and Lane counties have been sent to Utah for testing with funding obtained through a grant. However, an unknown number of kits remain untested in Oregon, according to OSP officials, leaving the crime-solving potential of the evidence kits also unclear.
Last week, OSP Capt. Alex Garner told a legislative task force overseeing the backlog problem that test results from several hundred kits have come back from Utah. Of those, 33 matched with DNA profiles in a national database. It's unclear whether any prosecutions or exonerations have resulted from the newly tested kits.
Nestled in the legislation passed to hasten rape kit testing was an appropriation of $1.5 million to the state police to hire more crime lab analysts. Although six have been hired, at least three positions remain unfilled, according to officials.
"Many on the outside are thinking, 'Well, you got approval for the money, why aren't we seeing improvement?' " Gardner told the task force. "The answer is, we're going to see improvement probably about 18 months after these people are hired."
Gardner said that when forensic analysts are brought on, they go through an extensive, yearlong training that requires a veteran crime analyst to be pulled off their current cases. The five state crime labs are already so understaffed there is no time to test DNA evidence from property crimes, he said.
Gardner said the crime labs are making slow progress against the rape kits backlog. That's despite a growing number of kits being submitted to law enforcement agencies. The number of rape kits received by Oregon law enforcement agencies jumped from 128 in 2014 to 567 in 2015. In 2016, the number has already crested 1,000 kits with a quarter of the year left.
In the hopes of tackling the mounting backlog of evidence, OSP has applied for a $1.5 million federal grant to hire more staff and purchase software that will track rape kits from hospitals to law enforcement agencies, crime labs and the courts. Federal authorities did not respond to requests for information about the grant status, and state police officials said they had not heard back either.
The new law also mandated Oregon State Police to develop a written process to set priorities for rape kit testing. Kits from elderly or minor victims or people who suffered significant injury are to be tested first.
Emails between OSP officials released to the Statesman Journal via a public records request show that the rules haven't been finalized. The emails show that officials may begin using procedures similar to ones already in place.
OSP Forensic Operations Director Rob Hilsenteger said in an interview that he and other forensics specialists are trying to figure out if their prioritization rules would be good enough to satisfy Melissa's Law and cut down on the backlog.
The conversation is ongoing, he said. Hilsenteger continued: "At this point, the discussions are pretty much in passing like, 'Hey we need to work on this in the fourth quarter' type of thing."
Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, was unsatisfied with that comment.
"I would certainly hope that this is a priority that's something more than just discussions in passing," said Gelse, who wrote Melissa's Law, which passed unanimously in the state House and Senate. "This is a high priority for the Legislature and survivors of sexual assault."
The law gives OSP until January to adopt rules for prioritizing which rape kits get tested first. Hilsenteger said a draft of the rules is ready and he anticipates OSP's Forensic Executive Leadership Team will adopt them shortly.
Despite Oregon's slow start to testing rape kits, the situation could be worse. In Wisconsin, where a year ago a similar grant was obtained to test sexual assault evidence, no kits have been tested.
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