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Time improvement sought for sexual assault examination kit testing

A sexual assault can be the most terrifying time of a person’s life.

But waiting for answers — and a possible perpetrator conviction — can often prolong that pain because expediency is not always common.

The problem is sometimes how soon a sexual assault examination kit can be forensically tested, a procedure not established in statute.

Sponsored by Rep. Marion O'Neill (R-Maple Lake), HF3017 aims to establish a procedure for handling such kits. It has no Senate companion.

Recommendations are based on a recent Working Group on Untested Rape Kits.

The issue was discussed Tuesday by the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. Technically not heard by the committee, no action occurred on the bill, rather victim advocates, a nurse and representatives from law enforcement and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension walked through the process from when a victim seeks medical attention through evidence testing.

Rep. Marion O'Neill asks a question to Linda Walther, a sexual assault nurse examiner, during the Feb. 27 meeting of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. Photo by Paul Battaglia

Linda Walther, a sexual assault nurse examiner, said current practice is for a law enforcement agency to pick up a sexual assault examination kit from the hospital if a crime report is filed, otherwise the hospital stores it. However, the length of storage time varies between hospitals. “We want them to keep it for as long as they can,” she said.

Stressing the thoroughness of an exam, O’Neill said it is important for kits to be properly treated.

Because victim care and training can vary across the state, the group’s recommendations include increased opportunity for 40-hour trainings for sexual assault nurse examiners. 

“Every woman in Minnesota who experiences this should have the same care,” said Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville).

WATCH Full video of the presentation on YouTube

Federal law requires states to provide forensic exams free of charge.

Then the wait begins.

Rep. Marion O'Neill looks through a sexual assault evidence collection kit during testimony on work done by the Working Group on Untested Rape Kits, during the Feb. 27 meeting of the House Public Safety and Security Policy and Finance Committee. Photo by Paul Battaglia

The bill would, in part, require a law enforcement agency to submit a rape kit for forensic testing within 60 days of its receipt unless it “deems the result of the kit would not add evidentiary value to the case.”

It would also require kits to be stored for at least 18 months “under appropriate chain-of-custody conditions.”

A 2015 audit showed nearly 3,500 untested kits in police storage. While the numbers have decreased since then, the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension can only process about 1,000 kits annually.

According to budget documents presented last session, the turnaround time for processing cases in the forensic science laboratories was 66 days in Fiscal Year 2016, 16 more than one year prior. However, the process for sexual assault kits can be as quick as three days for high-priority cases, such as those involving children or if a threat to public safety exists.

Bill Hutton, executive director of the Minnesota Sheriff’s Association, said a kit may not be submitted right away if, for example, a victim or prosecutor chooses not to press charges or the perpetrator’s identity is already known.

Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL-Brooklyn Center) and Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, would like to see all kits tested and put into the federal DNA index system to potentially help with other cases.

 


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