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Wisconsin’s 6,000-plus Untested Rape Kits Include Over 2,000 Involving Child Victims

by Matt Clarke

Wisconsin has a huge backlog of untested rape kits. In 2017, state Attorney General Brad Schimel estimated there were more than 6,300 untested rape kits. The number of rape kits involving allegations of child sexual abuse was 2,441 as of late 2017. A little under half of them involved children younger than 10.

According to published data, 62 percent of the rape kits involving child victims and 70 percent of the 3,300 rape kits involving adult victims are scheduled for testing in 2018. Private forensic labs are to undertake most of the testing.

Schimel vigorously objects to the term “backlog.” He said most of the kits were not tested because law enforcement chose not to test them. The reasons they might choose not to submit a rape kit include the victim refusing to consent to having the kit tested, or the evidence the kit could provide is unnecessary because prosecutors already have a conviction, overwhelming evidence that the sexual activity occurred, or they believe no crime occurred. However, in applications for federal grants to pay for crime lab work submitted in 2014 and 2015, Schimel repeatedly referred to the untested evidence as a “backlog,” despite his more recent objection to the use of that term.

Public records obtained by the USA Today Network-Wisconsin were so heavily redacted as to render them impossible to identify which law enforcement agencies were declining to pursue investigations involving untested rape kits. Wisconsin Department of Justice officials said the redactions were necessary to protect criminal investigations and not cause shame or embarrassment to the agencies that are slow to submit rape kits for testing.

More than 500 of the untested rape kits involve alleged victims who subsequently withdrew the charges or were deemed by law enforcement to be “uncooperative.”

Such a large number of victims of alleged sexual assaults being characterized as uncooperative by local law enforcement troubled state officials researching the issue of untested rape kits. It raised questions of whether the officers received special training for handling rape victims to prevent misinterpreting “symptoms of trauma as indicators of untruthfulness.”

News reports indicate that 42 percent of the untested rape kits were not submitted to labs because police declined to pursue investigations, or prosecutors decided not to charge the suspect. Twenty-seven percent were not submitted because police believed the allegations were unfounded or that the results of the testing would not affect the case.

Labs are being overwhelmed by the number of rape kits being submitted for testing. The weekly number of kits in Wisconsin crime labs awaiting testing has climbed for several years, reaching 1,000 in July 2017. At that time, 361 DNA samples had been waiting more than two months to be tested — a seven-fold increase in two years. Of those cases, 212 had been pending for more than three months.

The most recent report from the state crime lab showed it took an average of 61 days to process a case involving DNA. That is 18 days longer than the previous year and 24 days longer than it took in 2013. The lab cited a rise in the number and complexity of submissions and new training required to meet FBI standards as reasons for the additional delay.

In September 2015, federal authorities and New York prosecutors awarded Wisconsin a $4 million grant to research the state’s evidence backlog, test evidence, and improve handling of evidence. In June 2016, 80 percent of local law enforcement agencies failed to reply to a detailed survey on evidence. In September 2016, Wisconsin received a $1.1 million federal grant to increase services, training, and evidence storage space related to sexual assaults.

The importance of testing the backlogged kits as quickly as possible is underscored by a report the state submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance in January 2018. Testing during the last half of 2017 produced DNA profiles that matched 20 known offenders in the FBI’s CODIS database. Of those 20, 11 were not even identified as a suspect in the original investigation. Just as importantly, the backlogged kits must tested because they could potentially exonerate prisoners who have been wrongfully convicted.  

Sources: www.chicagotribune.com, www.postcrescent.com, www.usatoday.com

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