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Processing of sex assault evidence gets political push

MEGAN SCHRADER Updated: February 16, 2013 at 12:00 am

DENVER • The Colorado Bureau of Investigation has a six-month backlog of forensic evidence from sexual assault cases waiting to be processed.

And that doesn’t include thousands of “rape kits” — a standardized evidence gathering kit used in sexual assault cases — from local police departments that are never sent in for analysis.

It’s an issue that state and federal lawmakers are addressing this year in a plan that would catalog more DNA evidence in a federal database that’s used to match crimes with offenders.

“Every day we wait, we risk more victims,” said state Rep. Frank McNulty, R-Highlands Ranch. “We risk opportunities to take these offenders off the street, put them behind bars and make our communities safer.”

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The evidence kits are commonly used at hospitals. In addition to collecting any potential DNA evidence from the victim’s body, the medical professional, usually in an emergency room setting, photographs and measures bruises and checks for other evidence of assault.

McNulty’s House Bill 20 would require the CBI to develop a plan to clear the backlog of unprocessed evidence. The measure also requires standards to be developed for consistency of sexual assault evidence testing.

McNulty’s bill has passed the House Judiciary Committee and now heads to the appropriations committee where lawmakers will consider the financial impact.

CBI has a backlog of about 300 sexual assault evidence kits waiting to be tested, and it’s unknown how many kits are sitting in evidence at police departments across the state.

Hundreds of rape kits are collected in Colorado hospitals every year, according to an analysis of the bill.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation, which has one of three public forensic evidence labs in the state, tests about 800 kits a year.

The Colorado Springs Police Department and the Denver Police Department have their own labs.

Colorado Springs police Lt. Howard Black, with department’s special victims unit, said there is a backlog of sexual assault evidence in the city, but was unable estimate the size of the issue.

“We just wouldn’t be a good comparison right now, the DNA portion of our lab just reopened,” Black said. “We’ve been sending all of our tests to CBI … and there are kits coming back from CBI that haven’t been tested that will go into the mix in our lab.”

The decision whether to test a kit is a complex one, says Erin Jemison, executive director of the Colorado Coalition Against Sexual Assault, but it is disturbing how many kits are never submitted.

“There actually are pretty legitimate reasons not to test rape kits sometimes,” Jemison said. In cases where a defendant admits having sex with the victim, but alleges it was consensual, Jemison said DNA evidence is not crucial to the case.

Those decisions are made in conjunction with prosecutors, Black said.

But the more DNA entered into CODIS — the Combined DNA Index System — the greater potential to catch criminals, especially serial rapists.

At a Feb. 7 House committee hearing on McNulty’s bill, victims of sexual assault testified about the painful process of submitting to evidence gathering at a hospital after their attack and the frustration of having that evidence go nowhere.

Kelly Binder told lawmakers she was drugged and raped in downtown Denver by a stranger and police never submitted her rape kit for analysis.

“Can you honestly tell me there is no benefit in having his DNA on record?” Binder asked. “I did everything I was supposed to do and in return the system has completely and utterly failed me. My rape kit test was never tested or submitted to CBI. It was never entered into the database that links predators. It has been lost forever.”

At the federal level U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colorado, is pushing for the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Reporting Act – known as SAFER.

His bill passed the U.S. Senate Tuesday in a 78-22 vote, and now heads to the House of Representatives.

It provides federal money for law enforcement agencies to audit their evidence rooms for untested rape kits, to establish priorities and to begin to process those kits.

“Victims of sexual assault have already gone through enough,” Bennet said in a news release. “They shouldn’t have to wait for justice to be served, while critical DNA evidence sits untested on dusty shelves.”

Bennet spokeswoman Kristin Lynch said victim’s advocacy groups estimate 400,000 rape kits sit untested across the nation.

The federal law would tap into an existing fund for DNA analysis, but the state proposal has yet to identify a funding source. The CBI estimates processing 800 sexual assault evidence kits per year costs about $1.86 million.

Gazette reporter Garrison Wells contributed to this report.

Contact Megan Schrader: 719-286-0644 Twitter @CapitolSchrader

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