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New short-cut analysis could cut Utah's rape kit backlog

Published August 4, 2014 1:39 pm

It was proposed by ad hoc group tasked with finding solutions to unanalyzed kits.
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There may be a shortcut in rape investigations that would capture valuable DNA evidence while cutting costs and getting Utah law enforcement agencies out of the bind of backlogged forensic evidence in rape cases.

It looks to be one of the most significant developments to come out of "passionate" discussions between members of an ad hoc group seeking solutions to unanalyzed rape kits that can be key in prosecutions.

The so-called rape kits — or Code R kits — are collected by specially trained nurses after a sexual assault is reported. They contain a multitude of forensic evidence, including DNA.

The issue of backlogged Code R kits became white hot in Salt Lake City earlier this year when the City Council asked police Chief Chris Burbank why his department had shelved or destroyed 788 of them — about 79 percent — collected between 2003 and 2011.

The phenomenon, however, is not just a local one — jurisdictions across the country face the same challenge.

The rape work group, made up of law enforcement officials, prosecutors, victim advocates and service providers, is laboring toward a consensus that would yield a recommendation to the Legislature on how such forensic evidence should be processed.

But various members of the ad hoc group have divergent opinions on the value of rape kits. Some victim advocates and the West Valley City Police Department, for example, want all Code R kits to be analyzed. The Salt Lake City Police Department, by contrast, has been adamant that such a strategy is expensive and unnecessary.

In a July 26 interview, Salt Lake City Deputy Chief Terry Fritz reiterated the position Burbank outlined to the City Council on why not all rape kits need be analyzed. Such processing isn't needed, he said, if the accused is known but says the sex was consensual, if the alleged perpetrator is identified by another means or if the accuser declined to go forward with the investigation.

"If we don't know a crime has been committed, we don't want to analyze a rape kit," Fritz said.

Beyond that, Fritz explained that Salt Lake City investigators will have rape kits analyzed when it would advance a case. But to send every Code R kit to the State Crime Lab could cause a backup at the lab.

West Valley police Chief Lee Russo, on the other hand, wants all rape kits tested.

"It's advantageous to us to have as much information in our database as possible," he said. "At the end of the day, victims have rights and the expectation that police will investigate fully."

If a victim were to decide not to pursue prosecution after a reported rape, police would still have evidence, Russo said.

If DNA from perpetrators is collected from victims and placed into the Combined DNA Index System database (CODIS), it would be possible for investigators to identify repeat offenders, Russo said.

Whether a new diagnostic technique will solve the conundrum remains to be seen. But Jay Henry, director of the State Crime Lab, said a streamlined approach to analyzing rape forensic data — an approach he calls the Utah Quick Kit Process — would have a short turn-around time and save 30 to 40 percent of the $1,200 to $1,600 cost of processing each kit, he said.

Statewide, there are believed to be some 2,700 unanalyzed kits.

"I don't think we have enough resources to test [all of] them in the conventional way," Henry said. "We're looking at technique changes to see if there is a better program for analysis."

Under Henry's proposal, only the DNA from semen and saliva would be analyzed immediately. Other evidence in the kit would be retained in the event more analysis is needed.

It is modeled after a system pioneered in California called Rapid DNA Service (RADS).

The California process allows turn-around times of two to three weeks, according to that state's Bureau of Forensic Services.

Among the reasons Burbank gave the City Council for not automatically sending rape kits to the State Crime Lab is the long wait — up to six months, he said — to get the analysis completed.

Holly Mullen, executive director of the Rape Recovery Center and member of the ad hoc work group, said she likes Henry's proposal.

"If police can begin an investigation sooner [with this technique], that would be great," she said. "And there would be the opportunity to go back and pick up more evidence without compromising the case."

Mullen is among the advocates for testing all rape kits. Despite the objections of Salt Lake City, she believes it is possible the group will submit a recommendation to lawmakers that all kits be tested.

"The main objective," she said, "is to get enough money from the Legislature to amend the delay in rape-kit analysis."

csmart@sltrib.com

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