Crime

Missouri’s new law is sending more rape kits to this lab, but testing is still slow

What happens in a rape kit exam?

A sexual assault evidence kit contains forensic evidence gathered from a victim's body during an intrusive, hours-long examination. Testing kits can find DNA evidence used to identify rapists, boost prosecutions or exonerate the falsely accused. N
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A sexual assault evidence kit contains forensic evidence gathered from a victim's body during an intrusive, hours-long examination. Testing kits can find DNA evidence used to identify rapists, boost prosecutions or exonerate the falsely accused. N

The number of untested rape kits with the Missouri State Highway Patrol’s crime lab has more than doubled since last August, when a new law requiring police to submit kits within 14 days took effect.

As of May 1, 403 kits sat untested. In August, there were 179, according to the agency’s website, which posts monthly updates.

While more kits are being submitted, the numbers show that they are not being tested at a higher rate — a part of the process that advocates say should also be mandated.

There remains “quite a bit of work to do in Missouri,” said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for Joyful Heart, whose mission is to transform society’s response to sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse, and support survivors.

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At the highway patrol’s lab, several changes are being implemented to address the growing number of kits. Some lab personnel are being shifted within the division and a new section in the lab designed to screen kits is being established, MSHP director Brian Hoey said. Other kits will be outsourced to a private lab.

“It is a challenge, but we will meet the challenge,” Hoey said.

A report released last year by the attorney general’s office identified 4,889 untested rape kits across Missouri. Five labs, 66 hospitals and 266 law enforcement departments submitted responses for that survey. Other agencies didn’t, so it’s likely the number was higher.

Since that report, the attorney general’s office received a $2.8 million federal grant that is being used to conduct an inventory of untested kits. The process should be completed in the next four months, spokesman Chris Nuelle said.

The grant will also be used to create a forensic tracking system. Knecht said Joyful Heart supports this because it allows survivors to check on the status of their kit, giving them more control over the process.

“It comes back to the survivors and remembering that these boxes that we have sitting on shelves represent an individual,” Knecht said. “This represents a person’s life that was derailed by something that happened to them, something very violent and something very invasive.... When we don’t do anything with this evidence, we don’t take it off the shelves and test it, we’re sending a terrible message to survivors that it doesn’t matter if you do this or not and that what happened to you doesn’t matter.”

The kits also represent a potential serial offender, making testing a public safety issue.

According to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, nationally, there have been 7,060 DNA hits out of 47,216 tested kits as of December 2018, meaning about 15% of tests resulted in a match.

In Kansas City, a man was convicted May 20 after a rape kit was tested and a DNA match was discovered. A police report said in August 2016, a woman sleeping in her bedroom was woken by a man standing over her. He held a knife to her throat and raped her. The woman went to a hospital and submitted a kit.

The woman declined to participate in the investigation until a year later. The case was reopened and a lab request was submitted, said Kansas City police.

Five months later, the swabs matched a sex offender identified as 58-year-old Arthur Norman Jr. According to the Missouri Highway Patrol’s sex offender registry, Norman had previously been convicted of three counts of attempted rape and one count each of child molestation and sexual misconduct.

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Katie Moore covers crime and justice issues for The Star. She is a University of Kansas graduate and was previously a reporter in her hometown of Topeka, Kansas.

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