Rape kit testing aims to assist law enforcement nationally

The Maui Police Department and Maui County Prosecutor’s Office hope to test roughly 150 rape kits sitting on shelves and any future kits resulting from sexual assaults in an effort to assist criminal justice authorities nationwide through an online database, officials said last week.

The department has been using sexual assault evidence collection kits, or rape kits, as part of investigations since 1999, and it has collected a total of 166, according to the state Department of the Attorney General. As of June 30, only 16 of those had been tested, or about 10 percent.

Andrew Martin, deputy prosecutor and Circuit Court supervisor, said there were many reasons kits go untested and one of the biggest is that the case was solved without the need for it.

“Where people are mistaken is that because there are so many untested kits, they think that is equal to the number of unsolved cases or cases that police are not working on or the prosecution is not working on,” Martin said. “That’s a big misconception.”

Martin said rape kit testing helps identify the perpetrator, but for the “vast majority” of cases police had other irrefutable evidence. He said many other cases involve victims informally withdrawing charges or not maintaining contact with police or prosecutors.

“Even if we collected the kit, we don’t need to test because we know who the perpetrator is,” Martin said. “A lot of the cases are solved through other investigative techniques.”

Lt. Micah Adams of the Criminal Investigation Division refused to use the word “backlog” for the number of untested kits and gave the same reasons kits may go untested. He said police receive about 20 to 25 kits a year, which they must pay to get tested and that can be somewhat costly.

Adams noted that no kit has gone untested due to funding, but to test all of them would take more money than available in the department’s current budget. Testing costs have gone up every year, and the first test only determines if there is male DNA, not including further tests looking for comparisons against national databases, he said.

“In that respect, it does come down to funding,” he said. “If we had all the money in the world, then all of them would be tested.

“Going forward, our attempt is to test every kit.”

Maui police plan to get help from the state Department of the Attorney General, which was awarded a $2 million National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance, last month. The money will assist the Maui Police Department and the state’s three other police departments in paying for testing.

State legislators appropriated another $500,000 to Hawaii police departments as part of Act 207, which Gov. David Ige signed into law this year. The law requires all law enforcement agencies and departments charged with the maintenance, storage and preservation of sexual assault evidence collection kits to conduct an inventory of all such kits.

Each department was required to submit its inventory of rape kits to the attorney general by Sept. 1, and only the Maui Police Department met the deadline. The attorney general will report the inventory findings to state lawmakers.

Beginning July 1, all law enforcement agencies need to submit their new rape kits for testing in accordance to the new policies. By July 1, 2018, all untested kits must be completed.

Maui police had already tallied their numbers by May, and the department’s spreadsheet became the model for other departments, Adams said. He began hearing about the untested kit issue in February, when media outlets began asking for the numbers.

“What makes me angry is that people paint it that we don’t care and that we don’t care about women’s rights,” he said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

While testing Maui’s kits will take time and money, the results could prove to be invaluable for law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

Martin said recent studies have been published on Detroit and Houston, where many rape kits had sat on shelves and gone untested. The studies looked at what tests were not tested, what were the results for getting DNA profiles and how many of them were uploaded to the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, he said. The software is used by the FBI to match DNA profiles to criminal justice DNA databases.

“What they found was that a lot of DNA profiles uploaded were hitting on serial rapists and crimes in other jurisdictions,” he said.

Police and prosecutors are typically concerned with the individual case and would not test a rape kit if it were not needed, Martin said. Testing all kits could potentially link the DNA profile to other solved or unsolved cases anywhere around the country, he added.

“The reforms legislators have enacted are all things I know Maui police and our office are completely in favor of because they are going to result in these added benefits that are not only good for prosecution and the overall pursuit of justice, but beneficial for the victims themselves,” he said.

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at csugidono@mauinews.com.