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May 20, 2016 10:17 PM

Law Aims To Speed Up Sexual Assault Kit Testing

The South Dakota State Forensic Lab estimates it will do nearly 1,200 screenings of evidence this year alone. Some of that workload could be sexual assault kits.

You may remember when reports surfaced about rape kit backlogs plaguing states across the country. That news prompted South Dakota leaders to take action.

A sexual assault testing kit has the power to convict or acquit a person accused of rape. No one knows that better than Michelle Trent, a counselor who works with rape victims through the Compass Center in Sioux Falls.

"In some cases, that exam and evidentiary kit is very important," Compass Center Counselor Michelle Trent said.

When tested, DNA evidence contained in a rape kit can be used to solve a crime. It can potentially identify an unknown assailant, or confirm a known suspect; it can also clear an innocent suspect.

That's why State leaders took action this legislative session to make sure sexual assault testing kits aren't sitting idle in police evidence rooms across the state, by requiring that they be tested within four months.

"There's a 24-hour medical time frame for the hospitals to advise law enforcement. Then there's a 14-day time frame in which the local law enforcement would retrieve the kits and then 14 days to provide those kits to the forensic lab, and then the forensic lab has 90 days to at least produce the initial results," South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said.

"It's a hard process to go through in general and when you can speed up that process and maybe find justice sooner, I think that's always a good thing," Trent said.

The governor signed the legislation in late March, but the efforts to get these kits moving through the system faster started about two and a half years ago when the Attorney General's office called for all backlogged kits still held by local law enforcement agencies to be sent to Pierre.

"We began serving agencies back in 2013. We'd seen it in other large cities such as Detroit, Los Angeles. We knew South Dakota probably didn't have the same number of cases or kits sitting on the shelf as those bigger cities did," State Forensic Lab Forensic Scientist Eddie Aamold said.

Still, that got the wheels turning in South Dakota which joined a national movement calling for faster testing.

"We saw it in 2013 and we began that process early, which is why we've been able to really stay away from what has happened nationally," Jackley said

The AG's office no longer considers kits in its possession backlogged.

"We actually started going out and getting those untested kits shortly thereafter in the spring of 2014," Aamold said.

Yet, national surveys and media reports have tracked tens of thousands of untested sexual assault kits across the country. So has the testing on all of the once-backlogged rape kits been completed? Not yet.

Since 2014, the state has collected approximately 500 untested kits from local law enforcement agencies. Nearly all of them have been screened to determine whether they contain DNA evidence. Officials say less than half were suitable for DNA analysis. Approximately 40 tests have been completed. Yet, around 170 kits have yet to be cleared.

"There is still some potential testing that would need to be done on some of the kits depending on the facts and circumstances of the case," Jackley said.

Those kits are also separate from the lab's current caseload of evidence testing.

"We would like to have it below the 30-day mark, which at times we're able to do, but at other times there's a high volume or other casework going on or testifying in trials, that timeframe extends on," Jackley said.

At the same time, the lab continues to strive to stay within a time window for getting these kits tested, even though the law doesn't go into effect until mid-summer.

"We've been able to keep a fairly consistent turnaround time of 45-60 days, definitely less than that 90-day turnaround time so we feel confident we can stay within that 90 days," Aamold said.

While the move to speed up justice for the 500 untested rape kits hasn't led to any arrests yet, both state officials and victim advocates agree, it was the right move to make.

"I think it sends a message that hopefully we're shifting to prioritizing sexual assault and preventing it in the state as well," Trent said.

The law goes into effect on July 1st.

The state has hired a seventh examiner, but before she can evaluate evidence for the lab she much complete training which takes several months.

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