Sexual assault cold cases earn legislators’ attention

  • Friday, February 10, 2017 5:58pm
  • News

By Tim Gruver/WNPA Olympia News Bureau

In past decades a rape case could have been dismissed because it lacked DNA evidence necessary for courts to bring a perpetrator to justice.

Today, sexual-assault kits are critical in preserving the DNA evidence left behind in an assault. The kits include a process for collecting such evidence as blood, semen, urine, hairs, nails and fibers.

Yet many kits collected with samples in more recent years were examined when law enforcement lacked the technology to properly conduct tests for reliable evidence.

A bill in the House of Representatives could dramatically reduce the nearly 6,000 kits awaiting tests and potentially resolve countless cold cases that remain unsolved.

HB 1109 would fund a new investigative team of prosecutors to test evidence from untested or partially tested kits. The team would be overseen by the attorney general’s office.

According to Jean Johnston, Washington State Patrol crime laboratory manager, the average length of time for a DNA laboratory request submitted by a law enforcement agency in 2016 to be tested and the findings revealed was 78 days.

“The actual testing of a sexual-assault kit could be completed within a few days,” Johnston said. “However, testing depends on many factors, such as the priority level assigned to the case upon consultation with the investigator and or prosecutor, crime laboratory backlog, and availability of staff to conduct the necessary tests and technical review of case file.”

A law passed in 2015 requires law-enforcement agencies to submit all collected kits to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for forensic testing within 30 days of receiving them. Collecting a kit requires the consent of the victim unless that person is a minor. However, the bill did not apply the requirement to kits collected before 2015.

HB 1109 would also create a task force to review practices for handling sexual assault forensic examinations. The bill further would require the Criminal Justice Training Commission to develop sensitivity training for anyone who interacts with adult victims of sexual assault.

The state’s police-certification program consists of a 720-hour program covering such subjects as criminal law and procedures, traffic enforcement, cultural awareness, and crisis intervention for juvenile victims of child abuse and neglect. This bill would add sexual-assault sensitivity training to that program.

According to Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the state lacks an adequate training program for interviewing adult sexual-assault victims, especially those whose long-dismissed cases could add additional trauma.

“Often, 10, 15, 20 years after an assault, it may be traumatizing for someone who hasn’t thought about the incident to revisit it, or it could be someone who had a bad experience with law enforcement the first time they were interviewed,” Orwall said. “Law enforcement should be working with an advocate. It should be teamed up with somebody who could be helping the survivor, referring them to resources if they need it, or just supporting them through the process.”

A related bill, HB 1155, would revoke the statute of limitations on rape and child molestation in the first, second and third degrees.

Under the state’s statute of limitations, rape involving minors in the first or second degree may be prosecuted until the victim’s 30th birthday. Cases of rape involving adults may be prosecuted for up to one year if reported at the time of the incident and up to three years if unreported. A case may be reopened for one year if the suspect perpetrator’s identity is proven with DNA testing.

Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center is the only state institution with Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner specialists. HB 1109 would fund more training programs to increase the number of examiners across the state, especially in rural areas hours away from the nearest hospital.

While law enforcement officers may be in charge of securing the scene of a sexual assault, highly trained nurses are in charge of the collection of evidence in which the body is the crime scene.

Sexual assault kits can also be essential in cases of serial rape, according to Andrea Piper-Wentland, executive director of the Washington Coalition of Sexual Programs. “Sexual assault kits can be vital in linking multiple cases across a long timeline,” she said.

Program costs under HB 1109 would be funded by a $4 fee for patrons of live adult-entertainment venues such as strip clubs or cabaret performances.

Eric Forbes, who owns nine of the 14 live adult-entertainment venues in the state — DreamGirls, Deja Vu, and Little Darlings — said the $4 fee is a tax that would unfairly increase his clubs’ $20 entrance fee.

“This $4 fee, which is a huge percentage of increase on our door fee, I don’t know of any business that would get that kind of increase off the bat,” Forbes said to a House Committee on Public Safety last week. “I can’t imagine that we could even generate a fraction of what we need to make that program go forward.”

Forbes said that alcohol is a much more significant factor in sexual assault than adult entertainment. State law bans the sale and consumption of alcohol in live adult-entertainment venues, and clubs like Forbes’ are subject to strict security measures that prohibit patrons from engaging in physical contact with performers.

“At the end of the day, this tax is gonna hurt our business and the women who work in it,” Forbes said.

HB 1109 and HB 1155 both passed the House Public Safety last month with a unanimous bipartisan vote. The bills were heard this week in the House Appropriations Committee and await that committee’s disposition.

This story is part of a series of news reports from the Washington State Legislature provided through a reporting internship sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association Foundation. Contact reporter Tim Gruver at

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