SALT LAKE CITY — When patients in years past asked Julie Valentine what would become of evidence she collected in their sexual assault exams, the longtime forensic nurse didn’t have an answer.
Rape kits from across the state were collecting dust without ever making their way to a lab for analysis. It meant law enforcers weren’t connecting the dots in the cases that could help bring offenders to justice.
That has changed as Utah has worked its way through a backlog of more than 3,000 sexual assault kits, becoming the seventh state in the nation to do so, in addition to Washington, D.C., state leaders and public safety officials announced Thursday.
“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 at a news conference.
The milestone comes three years after Utah lawmakers mandated testing of the kits used to collect DNA and other physical evidence from victims of sexual crimes.
The Utah push to test rape kits, including those from decades ago, began in 2015. Since then, 11,193 kits have been analyzed, 5,025 new DNA profiles have been uploaded into a national DNA database and 1,979 suspects have been identified, said Utah Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jess Anderson.
Utah Rep. Angela Romero, sponsor of the 2017 Utah law, called the achievement “a victory for survivors of sexual assault.” The Salt Lake Democrat said the initiative is helping to capture serial offenders by maintaining their DNA profiles in a database that returns “hits” when new evidence matches earlier samples.
“This isn’t a Democrat or a Republican issue,” Romero 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.”
Several of her Republican colleagues agreed.
“Justice that sits on a shelf for years is not justice,” said Sen. Jake Anderegg, R-Lehi.
Turnaround time for the kits is now under 90 days, and Anderson said he hopes to shrink the time frame to 30 days. Previously, some survivors of sexual assault waited two years.
The milestone was also heralded as a step toward justice for those charged in crimes they didn’t commit.
“This investment in public safety is going to pay dividends to law enforcement, to suspects that have been wrongly accused and also, importantly, to victims,” said Utah State Crime Lab Director Jay Henry. His lab tested some of the kits, while others were sent to a vendor out of state.
Utah joins Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky, Oregon, Virginia and Washington, D.C. in clearing its backlog, said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for the Joyful Hearts Foundation, which advocates for survivors of domestic and sexual violence.
Although it has worked its way through the backlog, his agency continues to receive about 120 new boxes containing the evidence each month, he said.
There is no state system tracking how many aggressors have been brought to justice under the initiative. But investigators with the state’s Sexual Assault Kit (SAKI) Initiative have been keeping track as they work with law enforcers across Utah’s 29 counties.
Prosecutors throughout Utah have charged at least 33 suspects across the state in light of the DNA evidence, said Steve O’Camb, a state SAKI investigator. Eighteen await trials put on hold by the pandemic, and a handful of others are under review for potential criminal charges.
A man who broke into a Utah woman’s apartment and raped her in 2008 was first to be found guilty by a jury as a result of the initiative. He was held to account more than a decade later and sentenced to at least five years and up to life in prison.
Utah’s handling of rape kits came under fire in 2014 when a statewide survey revealed a logjam of more than 2,600 sexual assault kits. The number later grew to about 3,300 as the crime lab received more kits from police agencies than it had originally anticipated.
A separate 2016 study from Valentine and Brigham Young University revealed that one-third of sexual assault evidence collected from 2010 to 2013 had been processed by the end of 2015. It also found that Utah police departments took roughly 60% longer to send the kits in for testing compared to other parts of the country.
The initiative has also provided training for police on understanding how trauma affects victims and how to best respond to their concerns. And it includes an electronic tracking system so victims can check the status of their kits.
The state tapped into several sources of funding. They include an initial $1.2 million from the Utah Legislature, roughly $2 million in federal grants and $2 million from within the Department of Public Safety budget.
Utah House Speaker Brad Wilson noted the Legislature this year set aside an additional $1.6 million for the State Crime Lab in an effort to further reduce turnaround time, beef up DNA technology and solve more cold cases.
Those who have experienced sexual abuse or assault can connect to trained advocates through Utah’s statewide 24-hour Rape and Sexual Assault Crisis Line at 888-421-1100.