Editorials

If rape is a serious crime, why does Missouri throw valuable DNA evidence in the trash?

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.
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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.

We still don’t know how much DNA evidence from rape kits has been trashed or ignored in Missouri, but it’s old assumptions that need to be tossed instead. Like the one about how when DNA evidence of sexual assault is available, a prosecution is sure to follow.

A new Missouri law that went into effect in August does require a new level of accountability on how rape kits are handled.

Yet it took a national shaming in the form of a recent report from CNN for the police chief in Springfield, Mo., to apologize to victims for discarding almost 200 rape kits between 2010 and 2015 — in cases for which prosecution still would have been possible. Three out of four of the kits that were thrown away had never been tested.

Now the police chief in Springfield, Paul Williams, has released a video statement in which he says he’s sorry, but also says that everybody was doing it.

Evidence hasn’t been destroyed prematurely in the last three years, he said. And such faulty practices “were not uncommon” around the country.

Unfortunately, that’s absolutely true; the Justice Department has found that a third of all rape kits are destroyed before the statute of limitations has run out.

If you wonder why victims still tend to think that this serious crime is not treated with adequate seriousness, wonder no more.

And if you wonder how valuable such evidence really is, remember that earlier this year, the “Golden State Killer” believed responsible for a dozen murders and at least 46 rapes in California in the 1970s and ‘80s was finally identified and charged based on DNA evidence run through a genealogy website.

A new inventory by the attorney general in Washington state found 6,500 untested kits there. Recently, a Washington man was arrested in the brutal rape of a 14-year-old more than a decade ago. Why the lag? Because although the crime was reported immediately, the DNA evidence obtained in 2007 was only processed last December. And in the interim, it should come as no surprise that the suspect continued to commit “violent and sexually aggressive crimes,” according to the prosecutor.

Yes, things are getting better, but we have such a long way to go, here and elsewhere.

After The Columbia Missourian published an investigation into untested evidence in this state in October of 2017, Attorney General Josh Hawley launched Missouri’s first audit of untested evidence.

A year later, Hawley’s office announced that 5,424 untested sexual assault evidence kits had been reported by 372 law enforcement agencies, five crime labs and 87 health-care providers. That’s definitely an undercount, because there are almost twice that many law enforcement agencies in the state and participation in the audit was voluntary.

But that means that at least 5,424 victims in Missouri underwent an incredibly invasive process in hopes of seeing justice done and other such crimes prevented. And then, nothing happened.

The Missouri AG’s office has now received a $2.8 million Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant from the DOJ to track, finish counting and finally test this vital evidence. The state’s next attorney general, Eric Schmitt, who will succeed Hawley when he becomes a U.S. senator next month, must give victims reason to hope that they’re not submitting to a difficult exam for nothing.

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