ANCHORAGE (KTUU) — A backlog of nearly 3,500 completed sexual assault evidence kits could be resolved in two years with $2.75 million added to the state’s capital budget by the Alaska Legislature before it adjourned earlier this month.
The evidence in the test kits — tissue swabs, clothing, hair, skin, blood — were gathered by investigators around Alaska according to state Department of Public Safety officials. But the kits remained in the custody of troopers and local departments — 53 percent are held by Anchorage police. The non-analyzed kits came off the state’s priority list because they weren’t needed to prosecute criminals, or there wasn’t the money budgeted to run the tests.
Now, Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, says that should change.
“We know that the DNA evidence will get dangerous criminals off the streets,” Tarr said in an interview.
Tarr and Orin Dym, the head of the state’s crime lab, said that previously, the evidence in the kits were ignored in cases where a rapist confessed, or in a date-rape trial, when sexual contact was acknowledged by both sides but consent was contested.
Now all the kits will be sent to private laboratories if they are likely to contain DNA evidence. The kits themselves will be stored in the crime lab.
“We’re changing from thinking about a single event — the evidence in a single event — to the evidence as a whole, the relationship to everything,” Dym said in an interview Wednesday. “What if you’re dealing with a serial rapist or someone who’s involved in other cases where the suspect wasn’t known?”
The DNA profile from the kits will be entered into databases run by the state and federal governments, Dym said.
Depending on the source of the sample, DNA evidence can be preserved for decades or even centuries. Experts have extracted DNA from the mummified remains of ancient Egypt, Dym noted. But blood samples would have to be carefully maintained, he added. DNA has become a standard identifying tool in criminal cases, and juries have come to expect that kind of evidence at trial. Dym said DNA testing has become cheaper in recent years.
Alaska may seem isolated, but many criminals move back and forth between the Lower 48, Dym and Tarr said.
“We have a high felon population per capita, and a transient population,” Tarr said.
The state rape kit backlog is likely to turn into a backlog of testing at the national laboratories, Tarr said. The federal government has been giving grants to states to beef up rape kit programs around the country, and that means a lot more testing nationwide, she said.
Dym said the state’s crime lab is capable of testing the kits, but it would take too long to train a new lab worker just for the kits — and that worker would become redundant when the backlog was resolved.
the Alaska Department of Public Safety spokesman Jonathan Taylor said a $1.1 million federal grant was used by the state to hire a retired trooper from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, Michael Burkmire, to work with the tested kits as a cold-case investigator. That grant will run for three years.
“Hiring Sgt. Burkmire and reducing the sexual assault evidence backlog are the latest steps in building a Safer Alaska,” Gov. Bill Walker said in a prepared statement in April. “Processing this evidence backlog is vital to ensuring justice for survivors of sexual assault.”