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Why 4,700 Rape Kits In Oregon Have Yet To Be Tested

<p>The Oregon State Police provide these standard kits to hospitals to make it easier for nurses to collect forensic evidence from sexual assault victims.&nbsp;</p>

Amelia Templeton

The Oregon State Police provide these standard kits to hospitals to make it easier for nurses to collect forensic evidence from sexual assault victims. 

Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in Oregon received nearly $4 million last week to DNA test an extensive backlog of sexual assault kits.

According to a recent audit by the Oregon State Police, there are more than 4,700 untested kits in Oregon, which doesn’t included those submitted anonymously.

In Oregon, anyone who’s been sexually assaulted can get a free medical exam, emergency contraception and medication to prevent sexually transmitted infections. If they show up at the hospital within three days of the assault, nurses can also collect forensic evidence. The process is painstaking and can take up to eight hours. Afterward, victims have the choice to file charges.

Devon Summer, a forensic scientist with OSP crime lab, works in the biology division, examining crime scene evidence for blood, saliva or semen that could help identify a suspect.

"I look at it like, 'OK, this is probably the worst thing that's ever happened to a person.' And I can't even begin to imagine what that's like personally, I have no experience with that," Summer said. "But what I can do is, I can screen the evidence, and use my knowledge to help that person as they go through the criminal justice system."

Any kits that contain biological evidence are sent to a lab upstairs that can analyze tiny amounts of DNA.

But a recent inventory by OSP found that virtually every law enforcement agency in the state had sexual assault kits they had never sent to the crime lab for testing. Oregon Public Broadcasting obtained a copy of the inventory through a public records request, which showed most of the untested kits are from assaults that took place in the past 10 years. Oregon has a 12-year statute of limitations for rape. They come from sexual assault victims as young as three and as old as 82.

"This is not an acceptable situation, where we've had victims who have gone to the hospital, who have had evidence collected from their bodies and then we've had evidence that sat untested,” said Don Reese, a chief deputy district attorney with Multnomah County, who's working to eliminate the backlog of untested kits in the county.

However, he believes that in most cases, investigators had legitimate reasons not to submit a kit for testing.

"For example, the suspect was known to the victim, victim did not want to proceed with the case, case could be prosecuted without the DNA results," Reese said.

George Burke, who leads the detective division at the Portland Police Bureau, agreed that often sexual assaults involve people who know each other.

"There are a lot of cases where the identity of the suspect is known, but the facts are different," said Burke. For example, the victim and the suspect agree that sex took place, but disagree whether it was consensual. Burke said in those cases, detectives often didn’t see a need in testing a rape kit for DNA.

But recently the Portland Police Bureau’s thinking has changed.

"What we don’t know is the history of the person who is claiming that there is consent. Maybe there are multiple cases throughout the country where the person is alleging there was consent where there wasn’t," Burke said.

There’s also the issue of discretion. In the past, it's been up to individual detectives to decide whether to test a kit.

Researchers in Detroit, Michigan, interviewed police officers to shed light on why so many kits went untested, and found one major factor was lack of resources. Officers had heavy workloads and little time to conduct investigations, and crime labs were similarly short staffed. But the researchers also found that sometimes detectives had biases against particular groups of rape victims, like prostitutes or adolescent victims.

To avoid this, the Portland Police Bureau is in the process of adopting a new policy that makes it mandatory with very few exceptions for detectives to send every kit to the lab.

"By going to 100 percent submission, you take away that decision making process, and you take away any of the biases that might be attached, whether it be a victim bias or the bias of the investigator,” said Burke.

As for the backlog of untested rape kits, the recent infusion of $4 million will make it possible for police and prosecutors to send many of Oregon's untested kits to a private lab for testing, and to follow up on any new evidence they find.

Copyright 2015 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amelia Templeton is a multimedia reporter and producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting, covering Portland city hall, justice and local news. She was previously a reporter for EarthFix, an award-winning public media project covering the environment in the Northwest.