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Washington state lab needs more money to clear rape kit backlog

This April 2, 2015, photo shows an evidence bag from a sexual assault case in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, which processes the kits for agencies across the state, says it isn’t making a dent in the backlog of kits needing testing.
This April 2, 2015, photo shows an evidence bag from a sexual assault case in the biology lab at the Houston Forensic Science Center in Houston. The Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, which processes the kits for agencies across the state, says it isn’t making a dent in the backlog of kits needing testing. AP

Lab managers in Washington say they won’t be able to make a dent in the state’s backlog of thousands of untested rape kits until more money is found.

A new state law requires police departments to submit every rape kit for testing within 30 days of completion. Even with staffing increases, the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab can’t keep up with the influx.

Lawmakers gave the lab an extra $2.75 million to offset the workload, but that’s less than half what State Patrol requested. Jean Johnston, CODIS manager for the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab, said the money will let them hire seven more scientists, but that’s not enough to clear the backlog. (CODIS is the Combined DNA Index System, a national crime solving database of DNA.)

Johnston told KING-TV the lab doesn’t have sufficient staff to handle the estimated 5,000 to 6,000 untested rape kits held by police agencies statewide.

“These go back for a decade or more, so we really don’t have the staff to do that. We’re trying to keep our head above water on the current incoming cases,” Johnston said.

Earlier this year, the Bellingham Police Department reported it had more than 60 untested kits, dating back to 2007. About six of those are for victims who chose to remain anonymous.

Leah Gehri, director of emergency services at St. Joseph hospital in Bellingham, where nurses are trained to collect evidence for a rape kit, told The Bellingham Herald in March the new law could help solve cold cases.

“When you think about how long DNA evidence has been around ... at one point there weren’t a lot of DNA profiles hanging out there, they just didn’t have a lot of them,” Gehri said. “Now however, 20 years later, when profiles are quite common, the likelihood that an untested kit would now match up against a perpetrator in the system is more likely than it ever has been.”

The exams take three to four hours to complete, depending on what evidence nurses need to document, said Kathy Hanbury, forensic team coordinator at St. Joseph hospital.

Patients are asked for consent at each step of the kit, and can stop at any time, Hanbury said. If they want to remain anonymous, the hospital submits the kit under a medical record number, which the patient could request at a future date.

Johnston says there’s been about an 86 percent increase in rape kits at all five of the state’s DNA labs.

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