Bills focus on sexual assault cold cases

Legislation would ramp up kit testing

— In past decades, a rape case could have been dismissed because it lacked DNA evidence necessary for courts to bring a perpetrator to justice.

Today, sexual-assault kits are critical in preserving DNA evidence left behind in an assault. The kits include a process for collecting evidence such as blood, semen, urine, hairs, nails and fibers.

Yet many kits collected with samples in more recent years were examined when law enforcement lacked the technology to properly test for reliable evidence.

A House bill could dramatically reduce the nearly 6,000 kits awaiting tests and potentially resolve countless cold cases.

House Bill 1109 would fund a new investigative team of prosecutors to test evidence from untested or partially tested kits. The team would be overseen by the state Attorney General’s Office.

In 2016, the average length of time was 78 days for a DNA laboratory request to be tested and the findings revealed, Washington State Patrol Crime Laboratory Manager Jean Johnston said.

“The actual testing of a sexual-assault kit could be completed within a few days,” Johnston said. “However, testing depends on many factors, such as the priority level assigned to the case upon consultation with the investigator and or prosecutor, crime laboratory backlog, and availability of staff to conduct the necessary tests and technical review of case file.”

A 2015 law requires agencies to submit collected kits to the crime lab for forensic testing within 30 days.

Collecting a kit requires the consent of the victim, unless that person is a minor. The bill did not apply the requirement to kits collected before 2015.

House Bill 1109 would also create a task force to review practices for handling sexual assault forensic examinations. The bill further would require the Criminal Justice Training Commission to develop sensitivity training for anyone who interacts with adult victims of sexual assault.

According to Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, the state lacks an adequate training program for interviewing adult sexual-assault victims, especially those whose long-dismissed cases could add additional trauma.

“Often, 10, 15, 20 years after an assault, it may be traumatizing for someone who hasn’t thought about the incident to revisit it, or it could be someone who had a bad experience with law enforcement the first time they were interviewed,” Orwall said. “Law enforcement should be working with an advocate. It should be teamed up with somebody who could be helping the survivor, referring them to resources if they need it, or just supporting them through the process.”

House Bill 1155 would revoke the statute of limitations on first, second and third-degree rape and child molestation charges.

Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center is the only state institution with Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner specialists.

House Bill 1109 would fund more training programs to increase the number of examiners across the state, especially in rural areas hours away from the nearest hospital.

While law enforcement officers may be in charge of securing the scene of a sexual assault, nurses are in charge of collecting evidence.

The kits can also be essential in serial rape cases, Washington Coalition of Sexual Programs Executive Director Andrea Piper-Wentland said.

“Sexual assault kits can be vital in linking multiple cases across a long timeline,” she said.

Program costs under the bill would be funded by a $4 fee for patrons of live adult-entertainment venues such as strip clubs or cabaret performances.

Eric Forbes, who owns nine of the 14 live adult-entertainment venues in the state — DreamGirls, Deja Vu, and Little Darlings — said the $4 fee is a tax that would unfairly increase his clubs’ $20 entrance fee.

“This $4 fee, which is a huge percentage of increase on our door fee... I don’t know of any business that would get that kind of increase off the bat,” Forbes said to the House Committee on Public Safety. “I can’t imagine we could even generate a fraction of what we need to make that program go forward.”

Forbes said alcohol is a much more significant factor in sexual assault than adult entertainment.

State law bans the sale and consumption of alcohol in live adult-entertainment venues, and clubs like Forbes’ are subject to strict security measures that prohibit patrons from engaging in physical contact with performers.

“At the end of the day, this tax is gonna hurt our business and the women who work in it,” he said.


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