Utah police started testing 70 percent of rape kit backlog

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah law enforcement agencies backed with new funding amid public scrutiny have put a dent in the backlog of more than 2,000 rape kits that have not been tested.

The agencies have submitted about half of the state's untested kits for processing, which could yield DNA that can be used to identify suspects in sexual assault cases.

Previously, police Utah weren't testing every rape kit of evidence, citing cost and time constraints if a suspect had been identified or if a case couldn't be pursued because of a lack of evidence or a victim unwilling to pursue charges.

Rape kits, containing several dozen pieces of evidence and swabs, take time for investigators to comb through and cost $500 to $1,000 per kit, according to police.

But cities and states around the country in recent years have been pushing to test every kit so suspects can be entered in a federal database and victims can know their case is taken seriously.

The City Council in Salt Lake City began questioning the practice after learning in 2014 that about two-thirds of the kits collected over about a decade were untested. Last year, the council passed an ordinance requiring the testing of all kits.

Holly Mullen, executive director of the Salt Lake City-based Rape Recovery Center, said many advocates and experts believe sex assaults are often serial, and by entering in all data, patterns can emerge.

"If a person can get away with it once, they'll do it over and over until they're held accountable," she said.

In Salt Lake City, Police Chief Chris Burbank had defended the department's practices. He announced a plan in April 2014 to review each of the cases, rank them on their importance and while protecting identities of those involved, post general details of each case online to explain to the public why they opted against a test.

That process stopped in December when the City Council passed an ordinance requiring police to test all kits.

Salt Lake City Councilman Kyle LaMalfa said the council felt that even if police knew a suspect in a particular case, there was a great social value worth the time and money to get all DNA in the suspect database.

Salt Lake City Police have since shipped all of their untested kits out for testing. Only three have come back, said Det. Greg Wilking, a police spokesman.

Wilking said one of those matched up with someone whose DNA was already in the system, but the suspect was already known to police in that case and the victim still didn't want to pursue charges

Lawmakers passed a law last year requiring police to notify victims about the status of their kits, including whether or not there's a suspect match, whether the kit was tested or if police plan to discard it for some reason.

Over the past two years, lawmakers have set aside about $2.8 million for the state crime lab to get supplies, technology, new staff and a contract with an outside, private lab to chip away the estimated backlog of 2,700 kits in Utah.

Jay Henry, the director of Utah's state crime lab, said in addition to about 800 kits waiting at the lab, about 500 have been sent to a private lab or the FBI through a federal program to cut backlogs.

Henry said urgent cases can be turned around in less than a week at the state lab, but for the average case, it takes about 200 days. When the new staffing and technology is up and running later this year, Henry said the state should be able to turn cases in less than 30 days.

Local and state officials said they are also applying for several grants to help pay for the additional tests.

The Unified Police Department, which covers communities in Salt Lake County, received a federal grant in 2012 that it's using to comb through about 100 untested kits.

Lt. Justin Hoyal said about 75 kits have come back, but they have not generated any new leads because a suspect had already been identified in many cases.

In West Valley City, police have sent out 124 untested kits and the department is awaiting results, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku said in late April. Vainuku did not have details Friday about whether any kits had returned.

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Michelle L. Price


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