JEFFERSON COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - The Jefferson County District Attorney's office has completed the first step in cataloging sexual assault evidence kits being held at law enforcement agencies throughout the county.
An inventory of 27 jurisdictions found 4,999 kits dating back to 1985. Among those 3,876, or roughly 77 percent, were deemed to have never been submitted to the state crime lab. However, 220 cases were prosecuted despite evidence not having been tested. Other cases where no physical evidence exists have also been prosecuted in Jefferson County in the same time frame.
"When you have this number of rape kits that haven't been looked at yet, it's a great big task to figure out which ones you need to look at," Jefferson County District Attorney Mike Anderton told WBRC.
In 2016, a bureau of the Department of Justice awarded Anderton's office a 3-year, $1.5 million grant as part of a nationwide program to clear backlogs of untested sexual assault evidence kits and get as many samples as possible into CODIS, the FBI's DNA database. Beginning in 2015, the federal government has distributed more than $38 million to over 40 jurisdictions in 27 states.
"The way I looked at it, the more (kits) we could find, the better we'd be able to answer questions for survivors, so I was happy to see the number we had," explained Aryn Gieger-Sedgwick, the Program Director for JeffCo's grant.
With the information logged during the inventory, the initiative will build a platform accessible to advocates, law enforcement, prosecutors, sexual assault nurses who collect the evidence, and the Department of Forensic Sciences. Each agency will be able to track a kit as it progresses through the justice system and will be represented on a multi-disciplinary team that makes policies on sexual assault response and testing priorities.
"One of the biggest things is that will immediately result in better communication with all survivors of sexual assault," says Michele Yarbrough, General Counsel at the DA's Office. "If a survivor calls their advocate at the Crisis Center, that advocate was never necessarily going to know that kit was at the crime lab being tested. Whereas through this grant and through this project, that database will have live time data that we'll be able to give to that victim."
Other grant recipients are reporting similar findings around the country. Detroit alone found 11,000 unsubmitted kits and 10,000 were located in Los Angeles County according to Gieger-Sedgwick. One benefit of having other jurisdictions in the federal program is being able to look to them for guidance on which unsubmitted kits to test first.
"The state of Kansas found by prioritizing kits based on a known suspect's criminal history, they were able to identify more CODIS hits," said Gieger-Sedgwick. "We know that most sexual offenders are serial offenders. Multiple (grant recipients) across the country have found hundreds of serial offenders among their backlog kits."
The team also established a phone number that goes directly to victim's advocates at the DA's Office for survivors to call for an update on their kits. Anyone who wonders if his or her evidence is part of this inventory can call (205) 325-1423 for more information.
The District Attorney says he's proud of the hard work by his staff in securing and implementing this grant that brings more resources not only to law enforcement but the citizens of Jefferson County. Anderton notes there is no statute of limitations on felony sexual assault in Alabama, meaning cross-referencing this new inventory with DNA databases could result in new prosecutions.
"Taking a look at these kits will ultimately get more offenders off the streets, protect more people, and hopefully the victims and survivors can have some closure in their cases," said Anderton.
The Jefferson County District Attorney's Office is still looking to hire an additional prosecutor and victim's advocate for the grant program. Click here for more information on where to apply.