The Salt Lake City council is prepared to pass an ordinance requiring the Police Department send every sexual assault evidence kit in its custody to a lab for testing.
Here, in this quiet space, no larger than typical college classroom, DNA-soaked cotton swabs hang from clothes pins and photos of crime-scene evidence dress the walls. Jay Henry is Director of the Utah State Crime Lab. He says this is where DNA evidence collected in the aftermath of a sexual assault, also known as Code R kits are tested.
“Any sort of assault, any sort of a crime scene, from homicide to robbery comes into this laboratory here and they do all of the screening of those samples and part of the screening is just to take an item of evidence and find some sort of biological fluid on it,” says Henry.
Nationwide, rape-victim advocates are calling on local law enforcement agencies to submit every Code R kit in custody for testing. This process allows DNA evidence to be entered into a nationwide database called CODIS. Advocates say processing every kit, regardless of the facts in the case will lead to more prosecutions.
Henry says he thinks the lab is already prepared to handle the potential flood of DNA evidence thanks to a portion of one-time money set aside by the Utah legislature.
“What we’ve put into place is a way to get a sizeable amount of those cases tested. And If they want them all tested we will get them all tested,” says Henry.
It’s estimated 2700 untested Code R kits are on the shelves of police evidence rooms throughout the state. More than 600 of those are in Salt Lake City.
Members of the Salt Lake City Council have indicated they’re ready to set a timeline for the police department to test all existing and future kits. Councilman Kyle LaMalfa spearheaded the efforts. He says there is a desire for other changes as well.
“So from the point of the crime, all the way through to the collection of evidence, the investigation, the sending the prosecution and the conviction, the city council is looking an end to end improvements in our process to make sure justice is served around sex assault and rape,” says LaMalfa.
LaMalfa admits the bottleneck doesn’t simply exist in local police departments. The state lab can take months to process a single kit.
“We know that the crime lab is very under-resourced and that crime lab is a state funding issue. So the state of Utah has a role to play here too,” says LaMalfa.
Salt Lake City Police Chief Burbank disagrees that all of the kits should be tested. He says there are valid reasons why some rape kits don’t make it to the state lab. For instance, a crime can be solved with the help of other non-DNA evidence like fingerprints. Burbank argues testing every kit would be a waste of taxpayer dollars.
“I don’t have any problem, if we’re going to say here is the funding in order to accomplish the testing that needs to be done and it’s going to be done in a timely fashion, it’s not going to hinder the processing of other crimes or anything else then send them all to the state and let the state sort them all out. But right now that does not exist,” says Burbank.
Holly Mullen is executive Director of the Rape Recovery Center. She spoke with KUER after the council took a straw poll in September to unanimously supported Councilman LaMalfa’s proposal. She says her priority is caring for future victims.
“It’s still important to look at what is in the backlog but I’d like to see everything going forward to be tested and also increased training and the right kind of training for police and prosecutors, which includes a greater understand of what a victim goes through in this traumatizing process and why that makes a difference in how they interview victims of sexual assault,” said Mullen.
As the council holds a spotlight on the department’s methods for handling sexual assault cases, Chief Burbank is working with a national organization called Police Executive Research Forum or PERF to do an on-the-ground study of the department’s practices as well. The results of that study, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Justice will be released in a year. It’s unclear whether the national organization would recommend testing all rape kits.
The Salt Lake City council will meet again Tuesday to address the issue of funding and follow up with Chief Burbank.