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As Utah clears rape kit backlog, leaders say more reforms ahead

(Becky Jacobs | The Salt Lake Tribune) Julie Valentine, an associate professor at Brigham Young University and forensic nurse, speaks at a press conference Thursday, Sept. 10, 2020, outside Utah's crime lab in Salt Lake City about the elimination of the state's backlog of testing sexual assault kits.

Taylorsville • When Julie Valentine started working as a forensic nurse more than a decade ago, her patients asked her, “What happens to my rape kit? What happens to the evidence collected from my body?

“The truthful answer was, ‘I don’t know,’” Valentine said. Today, though, she can confidently tell them, “This will be submitted, and this will be tested.”

Valentine joined other leaders outside the state crime lab Thursday in Taylorsville to announce that Utah had officially eliminated its rape kit backlog. Five years before, more than 2,000 sexual-assault kits sat untested in the state.

“The whole entire nation ought to be paying attention to what’s happening right here in Utah today," Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said, “because this is a big deal.”

As leaders celebrated the milestone, Valentine cautioned that Utahns shouldn’t consider this as simply the end of the backlog. Rather, she said, “it has to be the beginning of our continued pursuit for justice and eradicating sexual violence."

Since 2015, 11,193 sexual-assault kits in Utah have been tested, according to data from the crime lab. This has led to 5,025 forensic DNA profiles being entered into a national database and 1,979 suspects being identified.

While kits used to sit for years on a shelf, the turnaround time now for testing sexual assault kits is 90 days, according to Jess Anderson, commissioner of the Utah Department of Public Safety. The goal is to eventually get that down to “30 days or even shorter,” he said.

State legislators recently set aside $1.6 million to help the crime lab further reduce that turnaround time, said House Speaker Brad Wilson, R-Kaysville. The funding also will help the lab access new technology to solve cold cases in which DNA results were inconclusive or couldn’t be solved with previous methods, he said.

“This is a human rights issue that we had to take care of, and we had to bring a voice to survivors of sexual assault," said Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, who sponsored a law passed in 2017 requiring that all rape kits be tested in Utah.

“In many cases, maybe their perpetrator won’t be caught,” she said, “but at least we know their DNA is in [the national DNA database] CODIS and that if they do it again, and they’re caught, we can catch them.”

The bill mandated that law enforcement agencies submit kits to the crime lab within 30 days after collection, and it funded trauma-sensitivity training for police officers. It also set up a tracking system that victims can access to see the status of their kit.

“I wish all of you could see the difference in my patients' faces from before when I had to say, ‘I don’t know,’ to now I can say, ‘I know, and you can know,'" Valentine said. “I can’t tell you how powerful that is, how empowering, how healing that is for our victims.”

It’s difficult to provide an exact number of how many people have been charged as a result of eliminating the backlog, because police departments across Utah’s 29 counties use different systems to screen cases with prosecutors, said Steve O’Camb, an investigator with Utah DPS’ Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI).

The number fluctuates, but he said he knew of at least 33 cases that had been filed statewide, with 18 felony cases currently in pretrial.

O’Camb and Derek Coats, another SAKI investigator, said it’s been exciting to see the direct impact of clearing the backlog. In 2017, there was a DNA match from a 2009 cold case in which a woman was raped by a burglar who had a weapon. When Coats went to tell the survivor, who had moved to another state, that they’d identified a suspect, her comment was, basically, ‘I thought my kit was processed, and I just figured you guys didn’t know what happened.’”

The victim testified at trial, held in 3rd District Court. And the suspect, 30-year-old Bakar Mberwa, was convicted in 2018 of first-degree felony rape and aggravated burglary. He was sentenced to five years to life in prison.

Whether a victim chooses to go forward with a case or not, O’Camb said, the hope with Utah’s rape kit testing reforms is to “give them the best chance that they have" and ensure “some form of justice is accomplished.”

Becky Jacobs is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of women in Utah for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.

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