The untested rape kits sitting in evidence rooms across Whatcom County could be the key to finding serial rapists.
That’s one reason Heather Heffelmire, who is working in Olympia as the legislative liaison for Western Washington University’s Associated Students, testified in favor of House Bill 1068 during a public hearing in January.
One of the main legislative priorities for WWU’s student body this year is to support survivors of sexual violence.
“If you think about assault on campuses, it’s not like a predator does one assault — it’s usually a pattern of behavior,” Heffelmire said. “If you’re not having these kits tested, you can’t find that out.”
Rick Bell, who works in an Ohio prosecutor’s office, also spoke in favor of the bill at the January hearing.
Ohio, which had a backlog of 9,000 kits, has been testing kits dating back to the early ’90s, Bell said.
Of 6,000 kits tested, 2,244 received a hit to a known offender in a national database, Bell said. Of the rapists indicted by his his office in Cuyahoga County, 30 percent are serial rapists.
Those serial offenders were going undetected, in part because labs couldn’t process all cases, so kits involving acquaintance rapes weren’t tested.
“Police would say, ‘Why do we need to test on that? It’s going to be a consent defense,’” Bell testified to a Washington state House committee. “What they didn’t realize, what we didn’t realize, is that those kits, testing them would be helpful for the other kits.”
Their investigations found that 48 of 70 serial rapists had assaulted both an acquaintance and a stranger, Bell said.
Now that testing is showing results, it’s helping victims feel validated and go forward, and they may learn if there’s another victim, Bell said.
Heffelmire said she also felt the importance of the issue on a personal level — last summer she went to the hospital with a friend who had been assaulted the night before and sat with her while sexual assault nurse examiners collected evidence for the kit.
“Going through that process is a really long process, it’s not very pleasant at all,” Heffelmire said. “I kind of feel like if the kits just sit there, the survivor’s voice never gets to be heard. They never get to start approaching that process of justice.”
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.
“It depends upon whether we’re taking pictures, if there are injuries, sometimes we take a break, sometimes it’s too much for them to process,” Hanbury said.
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.
Heffelmire’s friend opted to remain anonymous, which means her kit would not be sent to the state crime lab for processing unless she decides to come forward and pursue a criminal case.
Hanbury said victims often have trauma from an assault and want to think about whether or not they want to go forward with a criminal case.
“One of the things we do want to make sure people understand is there’s no harm in getting the kit done,” Hanbury said. “Once the evidence is gone it’s gone. It’s better to get the evidence and clear your head later.”
Leah Gehri, director of emergency services at St. Joseph hospital, said she thinks HB 1068 is timely.
“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.”
Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Services of Whatcom County offers a free and confidential 24-hour helpine at 360-715-1563 or 877-715-1563.