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Audit: Sexual assault kit backlog shrinks dramatically

'Melissa's Law' passed in 2016 helped spur the processing of thousands of samples of DNA related to sexual assault cases in Oregon.

PARIS ACHEN/CAPITAL BUREAU - Oregon State Capitol in SalemSALEM — ""Melissa's Law" passed in 2016 has spurred Oregon State Police to make strides in processing a backlog of nearly 5,000 untested sexual assault kits, some of which dated back as far as 1983, according to a state audit released Wednesday, May 2.

The backlog had shrunk by nearly 78 percent to about 1,100 untested kits by the end of 2017, according to a survey by Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association of Chiefs of Police, said Danielle Moreau, a senior auditor in the Oregon Secretary of State's Office.

The progress resulted from legislative funding for new staff and equipment at the state forensic lab, more efficient technologies for DNA processing and a change in the way the agency prioritizes testing of evidence, Secretary of State auditors wrote.

State Police estimate they will have largely overcome the backlog by the end of this year.

"It is too soon to tell if these actions will eliminate the current backlog as many of these changes occurred recently," auditors wrote. "Yet OSP has shown substantial improvement in the number of kits processed in late 2017 and early 2018 while the statewide backlog has been significantly reduced."

"Melissa's Law," contained in Senate Bill 1571, was named for 14-year-old Melissa Bittler, who was assaulted and killed by a serial rapist across the street from her family's Northeast Portland home in December 2001.

At the time of her death, sexual assault kits from at least two other young victims attacked by the same rapist four years earlier sat unprocessed on evidence shelves at Portland Police Bureau. They were tested only after detectives investigating Bittler's case noticed similarities in the attacks and sent the kits to the forensic lab for testing.

Danielle Tudor, a victim of Portland's "Jogger Rapist" Richard Gillmore in 1979, was a vocal critic of Oregon's criminal justice system, which had enabled the backlog. She lobbied state lawmakers for increased funding for rape kit testing and for another law, also passed in 2016, that increased the statute of limitations on rape crimes. She also campaigned for Secretary of State Dennis Richardson in 2016, after he committed to prioritizing the monitoring of legislative funding to end the backlog.

"As a rape survivor advocate, I am incredibly pleased with the progress the audit shows the state is making in correcting an injustice to victims whose tests went unverified for years," Tudor said in a statement Wednesday, May 2. "It was not enough for the Legislature to allocate funds to end the backlog. I wanted to make sure survivors could have assurances that the money was going to be used as intended, and Dennis Richardson and the entire Secretary of State's Audit Division proved themselves to be the watchdog for victims I'd hoped them to be."

Sexual assault kits typically contain hair and body fluids from the victim and in some cases, similar samples from the attacker, which can be used to identify a DNA profile.

The law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2017, requires police to pick up a kit within seven days after notification from a hospital and submit it to forensic lab for testing within 14 days.

State lawmakers boosted state police's budget by $1.5 million specifically to add nine new positions to help with processing the kits.

Given the public interest in the untested kits, auditors recommend that the state police publish the progress of testing more frequently on their website, as public labs in Houston, Texas, Idaho and Florida have done.

State police started a project modeling the Houston website within a week of discussing the idea with auditors, wrote Capt. Alex Gardner, director of the OSP Forensic Services Division, in a response to the audit report.

The web page is up and accessible using the Chrome browser, but additional enhancements may be needed, Gardner noted.

Auditors also recommend that state police launch a tracking system where victims can see results.

A tracking system project modeled after on at the Portland Police Bureau also is in the works, Gardner said. The agency has received a grant to fund the project and plan to deploy it before the end of this year, he said.

The testing of sexual assault kits has led to neglect in the processing DNA samples from the scenes of felony property crimes, auditors noted. They asked State Police to come up with a plan for addressing DNA testing from those crimes.

"OSP decided to suspend analysis of DNA evidence for property crimes to focus on (sexual assault) kits. This creates a risk of a future backlog of property crime evidence at local law enforcement agencies," auditors wrote.

State police will soon have enough capacity and experience from addressing the sexual assault kit backlog to find a balance in allocating resources for DNA analysis of property crimes, Gardner wrote. He estimated that the lab could begin accepting some DNA work on property crime investigations by early 2019.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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