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September 24, 2017

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Nevada officials promise 6,300 stored rape kits will be tested

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John Locher / Associated Press

Kimberly Murga, director of the Las Vegas police forensic lab, poses May 28 for a portrait in Las Vegas. Murga backs plans to test every rape kit in Nevada that hasn’t been tested before.

With thousands of untested rape kits going back three decades, Nevada's attorney general and police officials in the state's two most populous counties are promising to examine each one.

Nevada has about 6,300 samples to be tested, Attorney General Adam Laxalt said in a statement released through a spokeswoman. Almost all are from the Las Vegas area.

"We hope to lead a strong state-wide approach to help Nevada attack this important issue for our victims of rape and domestic violence," Laxalt said.

The promise comes on the heels of Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval's signing a measure this week that extends from four years to 20 years the statute of limitations for reporting sex assaults in Nevada.

Kimberly Murga, director of the Las Vegas police forensic lab, faces the most daunting — and expensive — task in the backlog-clearing process. She's an enthusiastic backer of plans to test every kit that may be connected with a crime.

"There's value in these untested kits," Murga told The Associated Press. "It's a treasure trove that just needs to be followed up on."

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department has 5,613 kits to test, Murga said. That's from the city and most of surrounding Clark County, an area with about 2 million people and 40 million tourists a year, including the Las Vegas Strip. Two untested kits date to 1985, Murga said.

Combined, eight other agencies in the Las Vegas area have another 739 kits to test, Murga said. They are Henderson, North Las Vegas, Boulder City, Mesquite, the National Park Service, Clark County School District, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the Clark County coroner-medical examiner.

The number of untested rape kits puts Las Vegas in the top four of one recent ranking of large U.S. cities with the most untested kits.

By comparison, the Washoe County sheriff's office in Reno has 62 untested rape kits, including one from 1982, agency spokesman Bob Harmon said. They're being reviewed on a priority basis.

"It's not a matter of 'if,' but a matter of 'when' and 'how' they'll be reviewed," Harmon said. "If there's a potential for solving a crime, we will test it."

Testing can be expensive. Murga said her office, with about 60 full-time personnel, tests about 100 sex assault kits in-house per year, and uses a Texas firm for others. The police forensic lab is a sister agency to the Las Vegas police crime scene investigations unit.

Murga pointed to a deal reached by officials with the New York District Attorney Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination program with labs in Virginia and Salt Lake City to set a benchmark testing cost of $550 to $650 per kit.

Murga said she has been applying for grants, including $2 million each from the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Assistance and from the New York County District Attorney Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Program. The New York program partners with the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy group associated with "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay.

Murga said the goal in Las Vegas is to have all kits tested and the results entered in the national Combined DNS Index System by 2020.

Las Vegas police are also taking part in a National Institute of Justice-FBI Sexual Assault Kit Partnership and federal program to test kits from 2003 and 2004.

Of 240 kits tested in the two programs, Murga said the department got 13 back with information tying scenes together or linking DNA to a known offender or an arrestee.

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