Ending the backlog: How Washington state is working through 10,000 untested sexual assault kits

Many survivors of sexual assault in Washington state are a long way away from getting justice, but progress is being made.

The problems first surfaced publicly in 2014 when a non-profit founded by Law & Order: SVU star Mariska Hargitay began sending public disclosure requests to police agencies across the country.

They wanted to know how many untested sexual assault kits they had. The Seattle Police Department responded that there were more than 1,200. That kicked off a statewide conversation.

"It confirmed that we had a system that was broken," said Rep. Tina Orwall of the 33rd Legislative District (Kent). "One of the first things I asked law enforcement was ‘how would you catch a serial rapist?’"

During the January 2015 legislative session, Orwall sponsored a bill requiring all backlogged sexual assault kits to be tested.

But first, an audit would be done to find out how many kits were sitting in evidence rooms across the state.

The results were staggering.

"What was happening - which is tragic - is those kits were sitting on shelves all across the state," said Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson. "They were not being submitted for testing. Each one of those kits is a survivor's story."

More than 10,000 untested kits had been gathering dust. By that point, there were 1,600 in Seattle, 400 more than the 2014 count.

Snohomish and Pierce counties each had more than 1,000 kits - some more than a decade old.

"The way I look at it is ‘What if it was my kid that it happened to?’ I know I’d be outraged if it was her sexual assault kit that was sitting on a shelf in an office somewhere and nobody seemed to give a damn," said Ferguson. "So that's what motivated me personally. I knew there were thousands of these stories out there - thousands of these victims to try to help."

In 2017, the Attorney General’s office was awarded $3 million in grant money to start the Washington State Sexual assault Kit initiative - an ambitious project aiming to reduce the backlog to zero and speeding up the testing of new kits. 

"Not only did we want to test every kit, but we wanted to set up a system that would support survivors, that would rapidly test kits, so this would never happen again," said Orwall.

It's a two-pronged approach overseen by the Washington State Patrol's Crime Lab.

Bode Technology Group (VA), DNA Labs International (FL), and Sorenson Forensics (UT) are the three private labs approved to handle the backlog of kits.

The crime lab assigned local law enforcement agencies to each private lab. The local agencies send their kits directly to the labs. The labs process the kits, then sends the results to the state patrol crime lab.

The crime lab analyses the results. If a DNA profile is found, the state patrol uploads it to the FBI's combined DNA indexing system, better known as the CODIS database.

As of April 7, 2022:

  • 9,606 kits have been submitted for testing
  • 6,234 kits have been fully tested
  • Of those 2,541 have produced usable DNA

That does not mean an assault did not occur.

In the other 3,000+ cases, it is possible the attacker wore a condom, didn't leave DNA behind, or that by the time samples were taken there was no DNA left.

Of the 2,500 DNA samples that have been uploaded to CODIS, there have been 1,400 hits.

More than 1,100 are linked to offenders whose names and identities are listed in the database. While 270 have matched to other cases, meaning the attacker is a serial rapist who is still on the loose. 

While the private labs are chipping away at the backlog, a new 'high-throughput lab' in Vancouver, Washington is handling recent cases.

"We said what we want to see is every sexual assault kit tested within 45 days. Tell us what you need to make that happen," said Orwall.

High throughput means that computers and robotic equipment do most of the lab work - freeing up time for the 11 scientists who work at the lab to do what humans do best - investigative analysis and problem-solving.

The scientists extract a DNA sample from the sexual assault kit, put it inside a special tube that the robot is able to open and then walk away.

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The computer-run robotic equipment handles mixing chemicals and doing all the readouts and printouts, tasks that used to take up most of a lab scientist's time.

The high throughput lab receives an average of 211 kits each month sent in by agencies across the state. 

By law, the kits need to be sent to the lab within 30 days from the time they are collected and processed within 45 days of arriving at the lab. 

"To submit yourself to one of these tests, it is very invasive, it is not easy and that is putting it mildly," said Ferguson. "And we need to do our part to honor that person who has gone through that experience to make sure we preserve that evidence, get it tested, and then importantly at the backend, start finding the people who committed these acts, and put them away."

Representative Orwall hopes this will encourage future victims to have confidence in the justice system.