The Wisconsin Department of Justice’s effort to clear a backlog of untested sexual assault kits delayed testing in an estimated 350 other cases, according to a report released Wednesday.
The findings from the state Crime Laboratory’s annual review show the consequences of the Justice Department’s effort since 2016 to shift priorities and test more than 4,100 sexual assault evidence kits dating back to the 1980s.
The 2018 annual report from the laboratory, which examines forensic evidence, shows analysts spent a total of 4,850 hours, or the equivalent of 202 days, processing sexual assault kits for testing, which was conducted by outside private laboratories. The work testing the backlog of kits has resulted in charges against half a dozen people so far.
An average DNA analysis case takes 14 hours to complete, meaning the extra time spent processing sexual assault kits delayed an estimated 350 DNA cases, causing the pending caseload to grow to more than 1,100. More than 60% of the cases received for DNA analysis in 2018 were related to sexual assaults.
Those 350 DNA cases refer to efforts by crime lab analysts to examine biological material from evidence or individuals that can help establish a person’s identity or association with or exclusion from a crime.
The sexual assault kits were tested after the DOJ in 2015 received $4 million in federal grant funding to test Wisconsin’s kits, which began in 2016 under former Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel. The project, dubbed the Wisconsin Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, has been completed and the crime lab is now refocusing its efforts on reducing the number of pending cases.
The DOJ in 2014 first discovered the existence of nearly 7,000 untested sexual assault kits in law enforcement and hospital custody across the state.
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Sexual assault kits can contain evidence that is crucial to finding sexual predators or freeing those wrongly convicted. The thousands of cases remained on hospital and law enforcement shelves in Wisconsin because suspects were already identified, prosecutors thought cases were too weak to continue or victims wouldn’t cooperate.
Schimel previously said law enforcement failing to believe victims was another contributor to the untested kits. In September 2018, Schimel announced testing on the more than 4,100 sexual assault kits originally designated for analysis was completed, although small numbers of kits continued to be found and submitted for testing.
Schimel’s successor, Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul, knocked Schimel during last year’s campaign for taking too long to test the kits, prompting Schimel to defend the department by arguing it took time to inventory the kits and find private labs to test them.
In April, the DOJ announced it had identified 1,605 rape kits that had DNA from a person other than the victim, and information from 908 of those kits was uploaded to the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a tool for linking violent crimes.
Of those, 496 kits produced at least one hit, and 249 resulted in a “warm hit,” or a DNA profile that matched the profile of an offender who was identified in the case associated with the hit. The DOJ’s work testing the kits has resulted in at least six people being charged so far.
Kaul in April unveiled a bipartisan bill that would prevent a future backlog of untested sexual assault kits by creating the first statutory guidelines in Wisconsin for how to process them.
Lawmakers earlier this month introduced the legislation, which has been referred to committees in the Senate and Assembly.