With the help of the high-throughput lab in Vancouver, state officials announced Thursday that they have cleared a backlog of more than 10,000 untested sexual assault evidence kits.
In 2015, the Washington Attorney General’s Office led an effort to inventory untested kits sitting in storage at police agencies and hospitals across the state. That year, the Legislature passed a law requiring law enforcement to submit sexual assault kits to the state crime lab for testing within 30 days of sample collection and encouraging testing of previously untested or partially tested kits.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced at a Thursday press conference that about 99 percent of those kits had completed testing, while the rest were in the process. Of the kits that have completed testing, Ferguson said his office knows of convictions in 20 cases and DNA matches in about 2,000 cases. State legislators, law enforcement officials and sexual assault survivors celebrated the message the achievement sent to survivors.
“Each of those kits was a survivor whose voice was never heard, who never had a pathway to justice,” Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said at the press conference. “And we’re here to close that chapter.”
“To survivors I just want to say, we’re sorry we failed you and we’re working hard to make sure that never happens again,” Orwall said.
While scientists worked on testing the backlog, Washington State Patrol spokesman Chris Loftis noted that they were also receiving about 120 new test kits each month. The state legislation also requires new kits to be tested within 45 days.
Loftis credited the boost in testing capacity at the Vancouver lab with completing the lion’s share of the testing. He highlighted the lab’s increased testing staff, better technology and more efficient processes.
Leah Griffin recounted Thursday that when she was raped in 2014, she struggled to find a hospital that would do a test and, once she did, she struggled to get law enforcement to test her kit. She said it took 14 months to get her kit tested, which was the average across the state. She thanked everyone involved in the testing initiative for prioritizing survivors.
“This backlog was not your fault,” Griffin said while addressing other sexual assault survivors. “You were not uncooperative. You were working in a system that was not designed for you. Which is why I’m so proud of the group of people here who are redesigning that system.”
While the backlog may be gone, officials noted that the work doesn’t end. As the state population grows, Loftis said he knows the need for testing will continue to grow. He said authorities must stay ahead of the curve in terms of testing capacity to ensure the state doesn’t allow cases to pile up again. Orwall said the Vancouver lab will be key to staying on pace.
“The indignities of the delays of the past will never be repeated again,” Loftis said.
Ferguson recalled how at the beginning of the initiative, they didn’t know how big the issue was or what it would take to address it. He said at times, the scope of the project seemed overwhelming. But he called Thursday’s announcement historic and said it’s a testament to the way government leaders can come together to achieve important work for people.
The attorney general said Thursday the announcement brought him mixed emotions looking back on what he called a dark chapter for the state while also celebrating progress.
“I’m really proud of the work we’ve done, it’s been an incredible team and it’s led by survivors because survivors know what’s broken,” Orwall said.