The Alaska State Troopers have more than 1,000 kits containing DNA evidence from sexual assaults across the state. Those kits have rested, shelved and untested, because of a lack of funding.
Last fall, the state received $1.1 million to test those kits.
Almost a year later, none have been tested.
Keeley Olson, director of Standing Together Against Rape, said she gets some questions when people hear that: “Start testing the kits, right? What’s the problem?”
A big problem requires a big solution, and when the problem is sexual assault, it requires care to ensure victims don’t suffer.
“It requires patience, and on a topic, frankly, that people may not have much patience,” said Brad Myrstol, acting director of the University of Alaska Justice Center.
For years, police departments and prosecutors have been limited in what they can send to be tested for DNA. Testing is expensive, and the state’s crime lab — even after a recent expansion — can only do so much.
That forces authorities to prioritize.
“There’s a number of cases where the prosecutors are like, why test kits that we don’t need to test?” Olson said.
She offered an example. Imagine a case where a man and woman have an existing relationship. That relationship escalates into a sexual assault. The accuser and accused might each tell police that they had sex, but one says it was consensual and the other says it wasn’t.
In a case like that, a DNA match isn’t much help, so an evidence kit might go on the shelf.
Leaving the kit untested frees resources for other cases where DNA might make a difference.
There’s a problem with that hypothetical, Olson said: “But there could be a 16-year-old girl out there who doesn’t know who her attacker is, and it turns out it was him.”
In January 2017, Clifford Lee of Anchorage was sentenced to 70 years in jail after he was arrested in 2014 for rape, then linked with DNA evidence to unsolved rapes more than a decade old.
Behind each of those links was evidence from a sexual assault kit, and behind each of those kits was a person, a victim.
Earlier this month, Keeley, Myrstol and others participated in a statewide meeting to consider those victims.
That group, known as the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative working group, is finding answers to basic questions: As these kits are taken off the shelf and tested, when do those victims get involved? When will they be told?
Sometimes, these victims been traumatized by their experience or frustrated by a lack of progress. The last thing the working group wants to do is re-traumatize victims, Myrstol said.
This month’s meeting was “a really good example of how deliberative and thoughtful the approach is,” he said.
That might frustrate the men and women waiting for answers, but the end result may help thousands of people across the state.
According to a 2016 report compiled by the governor’s office, the Juneau Police Department has about 350 untested kits; the Anchorage Police Department another 1,400, and there are hundreds more across the state.
While the federal grant won’t test these kits, the working group’s effort will create a recipe for these departments to follow when they find funding for a testing program of their own.
The SAKI group is also trying to determine what factors led to the Troopers’ backlog and something else grim: triage.
“Obviously we’ve got a pretty good chunk of change … but it’s not going to cover everything,” said Maj. Jeff Laughlin, deputy director of the Alaska State Troopers.
Without enough money to test all the shelved Trooper kits, the working group will draft guidelines for what will be a testing priority and what will remain on the shelf until additional funding can be found.
In the meantime, the state is soliciting proposals from private labs that will test the chosen kits.
The process is slow and deliberative, but it is underway.
“I think it’s going to be a good thing for victims, and certainly for Alaska in the long run,” Laughlin said.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 523-2258.