By Ruth Brown, Idaho Reports
It took five years, but the Idaho State Police Forensic Services lab has tested the last previously untested sexual assault kit in Idaho.
The final test came after 2016 legislation, pitched by Sen. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, identified a backlog of not just untested sexual assault kits, but kits that hadn’t been submitted at all to the lab. The legislation came after a report from the Idaho Press in 2015 found that a significant number of kits went untested.
A sexual assault kit, commonly called a rape kit, is a forensic exam that victims undergo after a sexual assault. The exam can take several hours and involves a victim being swabbed, combed and photographed for DNA evidence and injuries sustained in the assault.
The results of an exam can lead to convictions and exonerations after a rape is reported.
The 2016 audit found that at least 1,116 of the kits were still sitting on shelves in Idaho police stations, with at least one untested kit dating back to 1990. Overall, the audit accounted for 2,538 rape kits across the state.
That means ISP provided reports on all kits in the 2016 audit now to investigators and prosecutors, and any hits in the National DNA Index System (CODIS) are provided to local law enforcement for further follow-up. The DNA can be matched with any other samples collected from crime scenes to identify a suspect.
“It really sends a message to people who have been harmed, your stories are important and they matter and we’re not going to let this ever happen again,” Wintrow told Idaho Reports on Wednesday.
Wintrow sponsored multiple pieces of legislation connected to sexual assault kit reform applauded ISP’s efforts on the project.
“This is a major step in building trust among sexual assault survivors, for assisting law enforcement, and providing critical information to policymakers,” said Matthew Gamette, Laboratory System Director of ISP Forensic Services in a press release. “Overall, the completion of these previously unsubmitted kits in Idaho is part of a bigger initiative to keep Idaho communities safe and combat the crime of sexual assault.”
Prior to state level legislation, in many police and sheriff departments, decisions on whether to test kits were sometimes made by just one ranking officer. Today, all rape kits must be tracked and law requires law enforcement to test all kits unless there is concrete evidence that a crime was not committed, or if a victim specifically asked the kit not be tested.
Idaho leads the nation in addressing this important issue, Gamette said in a news release. His lab leads a statewide multidisciplinary team that is addressing culture change as it relates to investigation, prosecution, and treatment of sexual assault survivors. The Idaho Legislature passed laws to test and retain evidence kits, and implemented the first fully functional statewide sexual assault kit tracking system.
The rentention law passed in 2017, requiring rape kits involved in felony or anonymous cases be retained for 55 years or until the sentence is completed. For death penalty cases, rape kits must be retained until the sentence has been carried out.
ISPFS staff processed the majority of these kits in Idaho at the Meridian laboratory and worked on this project while continuing to process current sexual assault cases and other DNA cases submitted. The lab accomplished this important work while receiving a huge increase in DNA cases into the lab – at some points between 2016 and 2021, an increase of more than 365% according to ISP.
“Our management and scientific staff recognized the critical importance of this work and put in exceptional effort to complete this project. I am proud of their accomplishment and what it means for solving and prosecuting crime in Idaho,” said ISP Colonel Kedrick Wills in a news release.
The FBI laboratory helped process some of the kits through an agreement with ISP, but no kits were sent to private labs.
As of this month, ISP reported that every evidence kit currently in existence in Idaho has now been entered into the kit tracking software developed in-house by ISP IT experts. This software has been offered at no cost and is now in use by a number of agencies as others look to follow Idaho’s lead and improve their evidence tracking system for the crime of sexual assault.
The software allows victims to follow where their kit is located, whether it’s at a hospital, a police station or the lab.
Wintrow said the online tracking system is beneficial for everyone.
“It creates transparency not only for the person harmed, but for the (police) agency,” Wintrow said. “It elevates the entire system.”
According to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, two in every five Idaho women have experienced sexual violence and one in every five Idaho men have experienced sexual violence during their lifetime.
Call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member.