New state report recommends legislative fixes around sexual assault kits

Additional funding for cold cases investigations also suggested

An advisory group convened by the state Attorney General’s Office released its report to the Legislature and governor on Monday that calls on the Legislature to provide resources for the investigation and prosecution of cold cases, and to establish a statewide practice of collecting court-ordered DNA samples.

The Sexual Assault Forensic Examination Best Practices Advisory Group compiled the report. The group was created by bipartisan legislation co-sponsored by Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) and Rep. Gina Mosbrucker (R-Goldendale) and supported by Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Both legislators also serve as advisory group co-chairs.

“This report proposes important next steps toward justice for sexual assault survivors,” Ferguson said in a news release. “My office looks forward to working with the Legislature to implement these recommendations.”

“I am proud of what Washington state has done to support survivors of sexual violence, none of which could have been done without the leadership of the Attorney General’s Office, the SAFE Task Force and the Legislature,” said Orwall, whose 33rd District includes parts of Kent. “Together, we are building a better, more informed system, so that no survivor in our state ever has to wonder again if their rape kit was tested.”

In 2019, the Legislature unanimously passed legislation establishing the advisory group within the Attorney General’s Office. The group’s mission is to reduce the number of untested sexual assault kits, and to review best practices for managing all aspects of sexual assault investigations. The group includes representatives from the Legislature, law enforcement, the medical community, victim advocates and survivors.

The report details the state’s progress towards reducing the number of untested rape kits in Washington state and highlights recent reforms implemented by the Legislature and others to reduce the backlog, according to the news release. The report also includes recommendations to improve justice for survivors of sexual assault.

As of the end of October, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab had completed testing on 3,154 backlogged sexual assault kits, which resulted in 440 new DNA hits. Of those 440 new hits, 76 matched more than one case.

In this report, the group unanimously recommended that the state provide resources to support law enforcement and prosecutors as they investigate and prosecute cold cases arising from new DNA matches. Testing backlogged kits has already led to the prosecution of cold cases. In one case, a kit was collected in 2007, but remained untested until December 2017. Ten years after the sexual assault, the suspect was charged with child rape.

The report also recommends that the state establish a uniform practice of collecting DNA samples from qualifying offenders in the courtroom at the time of sentencing.

When a person is convicted of a crime, such as sexual assault, they are sometimes ordered by the court to provide DNA samples for the national DNA evidence database, known as CODIS (Combined DNA Index System).

Currently, the practices for collecting court-ordered DNA samples vary between counties, and can result in samples not being collected.

Attorney General’s Office research estimates more than 30,000 felony offenders across Washington were ordered to provide a DNA sample at sentencing pursuant to state law, but such samples were never collected from them, thus depriving CODIS of tens of thousands of DNA profiles that should be in the database and available for comparison to profiles developed from sexual assault kits.

The office recently obtained a grant as part of its Sexual Assault Initiative that will, in part, fund investigators to find information on offenders who have yet to provide a court-ordered DNA sample.

The full list of recommendations:

• Provide resources for the investigation and prosecution of cold cases.

• Convene an advisory group to develop standard protocols for access to victim advocacy services in hospitals.

• Store unreported sexual assault kits and any additional items collected during a forensic examination at local law enforcement agencies with funding appropriated.

• Store unreported sexual assault kits and any additional items collected during a forensic examination for 20 years. This period should be reconsidered and lengthened if the statute of limitations is changed or eliminated.

• Collect DNA samples from qualifying offenders in the courtroom at the time of sentencing.

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