Tuesday, August 4, 2020
Aug. 4, 2020

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Vancouver crime lab on the cusp of expansion

Passage, funding of legislation would boost DNA testing capacity, helping state clear backlog of some 10,000 rape kits

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
4 Photos
Forensic scientist Mariah Coffey works on a DNA sample at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab on March 7. Coffey was hired to exclusively test rape kits.
Forensic scientist Mariah Coffey works on a DNA sample at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab on March 7. Coffey was hired to exclusively test rape kits. (Nathan Howard/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A movement to clear the state’s backlog of rape kits may soon be centered in Clark County if lawmakers approve a bill to staff a new, high-throughput DNA testing lab at the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab in Vancouver.

“The testing will be done here,” said crime lab manager Bruce Siggins, motioning his hands to direct visitors’ eyes around a large empty room on the second floor of the building on Kauffman Avenue. “The renovations will be ready when we get the (scientists), so they can hit the ground running.”

State House lawmakers voted unanimously Wednesday to pass House Bill 1166, which is aimed at addressing a backlog of more than 10,000 sexual assault kits collected by law enforcement statewide.

(Trooper Capt. Monica Alexander, who is petitioning for the bill’s passage, clarified that various totals for the state’s untested rape kits reported by the media are a result of how the amount is calculated. Kits are at various stages of testing, and not all are counted by various agencies. About 8,000 to more than 10,000 kits have been reported.)

The bill now moves to the Senate for consideration. Despite the current viability of the bill, Alexander said the House Appropriations Committee did not fund the legislation.

The bill would create a “Survivor Bill of Rights” and require that kits be tested within 45 days of being collected. Currently, DNA analysis of some rape kits take an average of a year to complete.

HB 1166 would also require law enforcement to undergo specialized trauma-informed training and prohibit the destruction of untested rape kits.

On Thursday, Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle, Clark County Councilors Julie Olson and Temple Lentz, and board members of the National Women’s Coalition Against Violence and Exploitation, among others, caught a glimpse of the Vancouver crime lab’s future.

Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy also toured the lab. The coalition is hosting Worthy as part of its No More Summit, an educational anti-violence conference. Worthy stars in the film “I Am Evidence,” which screened Friday night at the Hilton Vancouver Washington. The movie tells the story of four survivors whose rape kits went untested for years, following them as they navigate their way through the criminal justice system.

Worthy is also known for her efforts to process 11,000 untested rape kits found in a Detroit Police Department warehouse in 2009. She said testing the kits resulted in identifying more than 800 serial rapists.

Untested rape kits are a statewide issue, but Clark County lawmakers have stepped up local efforts to address it.

In mid-February, the Clark County Council passed a resolution supporting troopers’ 2019 state funding request for an additional $6 million for the creation of a high-throughput DNA lab.

From 2017 to 2018, DNA samples submitted to the local crime lab increased about 29 percent, according to the council’s resolution. The average turnaround for testing samples jumped from 79 days in 2014 to about 250 days by 2018, the resolution says.

So what is a high-throughput lab?

Siggins said forensic scientists use newer, faster testing technologies, but the process is just as important. The scientists look at the narrative of a given case and zero-in on the piece of evidence in a kit that would most quickly provide a quality DNA profile.

As the group touring the lab peered through two locked doors at a scientist in a lab coat examining a test tube, supervising forensic scientist Trevor Chowen said the employee was hired to exclusively sample rape kits. Chowen said the scientist was working on testing a sexual assault kit 2, or SAK2 — the newer kits in need of testing. Older kits are referred to as SAK3.

“One kit can take a long time, depending on the materials,” Chowen told the group.

To fully staff the high-throughput lab, Washington State Patrol will need to hire eight forensic scientists, a lab technician and a property and evidence custodian, among additional staff outside of the new lab.

According to data provided by Alexander, more than 2,000 kits can be tested each year if the new lab is fully staffed. Each forensic scientist can complete about 14 cases per month compared to an average of seven cases per month being cleared at other labs not equipped with high-throughput technology.

The backlog of untested rape kits can be eliminated by December 2021, but it will cost about $20 million, Alexander said. Some newer kits will need to be outsourced while older kits will be tested in Vancouver, she said.

“We believe we can do it. It can actually be done,” Alexander said.

Olson said Vancouver was chosen to house the new lab because of the available space, as well as the livability of the area.

“There’s been a lot of turnover in the Seattle lab, but people tend to stay here. The quality of life is a draw,” she said.

Olson was appointed to a seat on the Forensic Investigation Council in January. The council oversees and helps set policies for the Forensic Laboratory Services Bureau in consultation with the chief of the Washington State Patrol. The council also makes recommendations on improvements to the death investigation system in Washington and reports its findings to the Legislature.

There was not much talk on the Forensic Investigation Council about putting the high-throughput lab in another city, Olson said.