Las Vegas Sun

November 13, 2018

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Rape kit backlog decreasing as funding remains uncertain

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Yvonne Gonzalez / Las Vegas Sun

Law enforcement and academic experts joined a panel Monday, April 16, 2018, at the Rape Crisis Center to discuss Nevada’s progress in reducing its rape kit backlog.

Thousands of sexual assault kits have been tested in Nevada, but thousands remain in a backlog that is taking years to reduce.

More than 3,400 kits have been tested out of 6,473 from 1985 to 2014 in Southern Nevada, according to the Attorney General’s Office. In Northern Nevada, just over a quarter of more than 1,100 kits have been tested.

As officials work on reducing the backlog, they still have to keep up with the roughly 500 sexual assault kits that come through every year, said Kim Murga, director of the Metro Police DNA Lab. About 1,700 sexual assault kits have come in from Southern Nevada since 2015, and almost 1,100 remain to be tested.

“Even though we’re behind by about 1,000 kits right now in that current case status, we hope to resolve all of these cases by around spring of 2019,” Murga said.

Magann Jordan, a Victim Witness Assistance Center administrator with the Clark County District Attorney’s office, led a discussion on Monday with experts and law enforcement. Experts agreed that progress is being made, but that resources are needed to ensure the backlog doesn’t increase again.

Daniele Dreitzer, executive director of The Rape Crisis Center, said nationwide efforts to reduce the backlog started with a pilot program in Detroit in 2009, and has spread through Department of Justice grants nationwide. Federal grants totaling nearly $5 million have been awarded to Nevada from the Bureau of Justice Assistance’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

Dreitzer said that since this issue has come to light nationwide there has been more value placed on testing kits in cases where the survivor knew the perpetrator. These kits can lead investigators to serial perpetrators.

“What we were looking for was how do we shift our mindset about this so that we’re not ever in a position where we have a backlog because people said, ‘well, that kit doesn’t need to be tested, it’s a he-said-she-said, we don’t need to worry about that one,’” Dreitzer said. “This just is such a validation to victims that if they’re going to go through this invasive exam, somebody’s going to look at it, and if their perpetrator is linked to another case, we’re going to figure that out.”

Murga said of the 960 suspect profiles from Southern Nevada entered into the national Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), almost 400 resulted in hits in Nevada and nine other states to lead investigators to perpetrators of crimes. That’s slightly higher than other jurisdictions, where about a quarter of the cases resulted in hits, she said.

“It shows the value that really is contained in these kits, and the links associated with some of these serial offenders,” she said. “We really have to do everything to stop these folks and get them off the streets so that they don’t reoffend.”

Assembly Bill 97 says kits need to be sent out for testing in 30 days or less, and requires a statewide tracking system for kits, among other provisions. Officials say they had good intentions but failed to provide for long-term funding for kits testing. Some temporary dollars and grants are supporting the effort.

The backlog stems from a lack of funding as well as the highly transient nature of Nevada’s population. Many victims move away or are from out of town. Less than 10 percent of survivors are from inside Metro’s jurisdiction, said Sgt. Shon Comisky of Metro’s Sexual Assault Cold Case Unit.

Over the years Comisky realized Metro had some of the same issues with doubting and blaming victims that were present in other departments with rape kit backlogs.

“I knew there would be some cases like that, but there were more than I thought there were going to be in the cases I’ve reviewed so far,” he said. “That was more pervasive than I thought it was going to be. The other presumption I had was that there’s not going to be a lot of good cases … there were many more good cases that should have been done much differently back then that I discovered in this process.”

Comisky said a web page is being developed for the Metro site to give people information on how to find out more about their cases. The state is also working to create a statewide database for these kits to aid in investigations.

Each time a DNA profile is entered into CODIS, the entire system becomes more robust, said Jacob J. Villani, Clark County chief deputy district attorney.

The Attorney General is also developing a site to keep count of the backlog and give victims resources to track their cases. That will be up in the next month, Murga said. She said there needs to be long-term resources and funding from the Legislature.

“We have a great foundation so far,” she said. “We have a great law that has been put into effect, but we have work to be done. We don’t have any long-term resources that have been identified yet.”

Researcher Gillian Pinchevsky of UNLV said the public is becoming more aware and changing how it views on sexual assault, domestic violence and other crimes in that same vein, especially due to the #MeToo movement.

“I truly don’t think the public will allow this to go any way but forward,” she said.