ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) — Gov. Bill Walker signed a bill Friday that brought Alaska closer to eliminating its long backlog of untested rape kits stored in evidence lockers and sometimes on just shelves and desks around the state.
In a ceremony attended by legislators, state and Anchorage law enforcement officers and advocates for sexual assault victims, Walker declared that the popular bill, House Bill 31, would make life better in Alaska.
The bill passed the House unanimously in 2017, and the Senate voted unanimously for a slightly different version this year. When the bill came back to the House to concur with the Senate change, only one representative, David Eastman, R-Wasilla, voted against it.
One reason for the bill’s popularity: the state’s big problem of sexual assaults. Keeley Olson, director of Standing Together Against Rape, said that crime statistics and studies by the University of Alaska Anchorage show that Alaska has 2½ times more sexual assaults than any other state.
“Even if we cut that by half, we’re still number one,” Olson said.
The bill’s author, Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, attended the signing session. She said the bill deals with Alaska’s 3,500 untested rape kits by requiring police agencies to tell the state each year how many kits remain in their possession, and it requires the state to provide that information to the Alaska Legislature every year.
The bill also requires the state to plan ahead so the situation doesn’t occur again.
Tarr said the bill was a companion piece to money set aside by retiring Sen. Anna MacKinnon in the current capital budget to pay for tests.
In an interview, Tarr said the failure to test kits may not be a matter of bad faith by investigators, but rather economy — sometimes the evidence in a kit is unnecessary for a trial, such as when a perpetrator pleads guilty, or if the question for a jury is consent, not whether a sexual act occurred.
But now, with the cost of DNA testing declining, and the FBI’s national DNA database becoming a major tool for solving crimes, the reason for processing those kits has changed — especially if DNA samples can be extracted from them.
What might they show? Tarr cited the city of Cleveland, which she said once had 4,000 untested rape kits.
“They tested just over 2,300 of them, and they had over 900 hits in their DNA database.” That led to 300 investigations and 200 prosecutions, Tarr said.
Citing similar proportions, Tarr said: “Here in Alaska we have are just under 3,500 (untested kits). If this results in 200 criminal prosecutions, there are 200 individuals right now, today in Alaska, on the the street who are dangerous.”
Tarr added: “What we’ve learned is that there are many more individuals who are committing multiple crimes, so that’s why we have to test every kit.”
At the bill signing ceremony in the state’s crime lab, lab director Orin Dym said he was preparing the facility for all the kits by building new shelf space in a dry location that would preserve DNA evidence.
The bill does much more than deal with the rape-kit backlog. It also requires police academies to teach sexual assault investigative techniques and law. The goal is to standardize investigations around the state.
And it changes the way victims are treated by authorities. The bill allows victims to report sexual assaults anonymously. If they do, medical personnel still conduct an examination, but the evidence has to be assigned a number, not the name or other identification of the person.
“Especially at a time when they’ve suffered trauma, that might not be the best time to force someone to make a decision (to prosecute),” said STAR’s Olson. “Anonymous victim reporting allows for someone to have evidence collected and then preserve the right to report the crime. They might take a few days to think about it, or they might have garnered their support from their trusted friends or family.”
Olson said Anchorage already has an anonymous reporting system, but the bill extends it statewide.
Tarr said anonymous reporting make sense because of the nature of sexual assault.
“It involves a crime of someone’s body, and then the medical exam necessary to collect evidence is very invasive and it’s a multi-hour process — so the combination of having your body violated during the crime and then feeling like you’ve been violated a second time to collect the evidence is really, really hard,” Tarr said. “If you need to collect that evidence, you’ve only got 72 hours to do that. You collect the evidence, but you let the individual then recover from the initial trauma of what’s taken place and make the decision of whether they want to move forward in the justice system.”