Charges have been filed against nine people so far as a result of the Wisconsin Department of Justice’s work to test thousands of kits containing evidence collected from sexual assault victims, according to data released Wednesday.
Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul said in an interview he expects that number to increase as more tests are completed and prosecutors review evidence. Thirty-five cases have been referred for charging decisions, as law enforcement officials work through testing kits that had sat unexamined for decades.
“We want to be sending a clear message to survivors in Wisconsin that we are working to change what’s happened in the past, and that sexual assault cases and investigating those cases is a priority for law enforcement here in Wisconsin,” Kaul said.
Clearing the backlog of untested rape kits has been a priority for victim-rights advocates across the country for years. In Wisconsin, it became a central issue in last year’s race for attorney general, with Kaul arguing that his Republican predecessor, Brad Schimel, didn’t do enough to clear the backlog.
Schimel secured a $4 million federal grant to start testing the kits in 2015, but testing didn’t begin until 2017. Two months before the 2018 election, Schimel announced that 4,100 kits had been tested.
Kaul has been providing regular updates this year on the status of the remaining testing, including cases flagged for further investigation because the DNA did not match the victim, and any charging decisions arising out of the testing.
Kaul also supports a bipartisan bill in the Legislature that seeks to prevent another sexual assault kit backlog by setting new timelines and protocols for nurses, victims and members of law enforcement. Democratic Gov. Tony Evers supports the measure, but Republican legislative leaders have been non-committal since it was introduced in April.
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The sexual assault kits contain samples of fingernails, skin or other material collected by medical professionals that can be analyzed for DNA. There were 6,837 previously untested kits in Wisconsin and of those, 4,471 were designated to be tested. Testing is now done on 4,370 of those. That leaves just 101 pending, but all of those are from cases where convictions have already been obtained, Kaul said.
There were 1,622 kits that came back with DNA identified as belonging to someone other than the victim, flagging the kit for additional investigation. The state Justice Department, working with local law enforcement agencies, has reviewed all but about 300 of those.
Kaul said he expects the number of criminal prosecutions to increase from nine, but given the relatively low number of cases that remain to be reviewed, he’s not anticipating a large increase.
Three of the nine cases where charges were filed were in Milwaukee County. The other six were in Dane, Portage, Oneida, Rock, Waupaca and Winnebago counties.
As testing nears completion, more victims are being notified about the results. To date, 82 victims have been notified, while a decision was made not to notify anyone about the results from 881 other kits.
A survivor may not be notified about a test result for a variety of reasons, according to the Justice Department, including that the results were inconclusive or provided no new information and that the case has already been prosecuted.