Ferguson asks for state cold case unit after hundreds of backlogged rape kits linked to known criminals

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- For decades, thousands of rape kits went untested in Washington state, leaving many victims with no sense of justice.

That changed five years ago when new legislation required all rape kits be tested for DNA evidence. Now, hundreds of kits are producing DNA matches to people in the criminal offender DNA database, but that doesn’t automatically produce a resolution.

As of 2015, 9,760 rape kits were untested in Washington. They’d never left a police property room, never been sent to the crime lab.

“There’s a lot of reasons why but the reasons don’t matter. We’re the state, so we have to say, ‘If we offered you a moment of additional harm to the extraordinary harm you already experienced, then we are sincerely apologetic and we are sincerely aware that we have to do better,” says Washington State Patrol Director of Communications Christopher Loftis.

And they have done better, thanks to advocates, rape survivors, and lawmakers who worked tirelessly to get the backlogged kits tested. It’s an ongoing process, but in the last five years over 3,000 kits have been tested. More than 1,000 of those kits produced DNA that could be entered into CODIS, the national offender database.

Of the 1,000 kits that have produced DNA, 471 of them -- more than a third -- got a “hit,” aka a match to a known criminal offender in CODIS.

We asked Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson what’s happening with these DNA hits. His answer: "Not enough."

“Right now, literally, these hits are happening on these sexual assault kits. There are not the resources for law enforcement officials to take on these cases,” says Ferguson.

Ferguson is asking the Legislature to a fund a cold case unit to reopen unsolved sexual assault cases. Ferguson says in his proposal that the state invested more than $10 million to test the backlog, but "law enforcement agencies have not been provided additional resources to act on the new evidence these tests will produce.”

“What if it was a loved one in my family, who’d undergone a sexual assault, went through the very extensive process of having a rape kit done, which I can assure you is a very invasive process, and finds out later on that years went by and that the rape kit was never tested," Ferguson says. "That’s a big problem. Now we’re finally getting those kits tested…if I was that person’s loved one I would sure as hell want there for justice to be done. I’d want there to be an investigation."

“I think we’re at the point where we’ve tested enough kits that we need to make those investments, so we really do need to make sure that not only the attorney general, but other local law enforcement have additional dollars to work through the backlog,” says state Rep. Tina Orwall.

Orwall, a Seattle Democrat, has led the charge for rape kit reform in our state. She’s fighting to get additional resources for agencies like Seattle Police, who’ve seen their workload grow as their backlog of rape kits is tested.

Sgt. Susana Monroe supervises the 12 Seattle Police detectives in the sexual assault and child abuse unit.

“The detectives already have quite a large caseload as is,” says Sgt. Monroe.

On average, her detectives are working around 20 current cases. Adding on a cold case sexual assault after DNA comes back can be taxing.

“It’s more labor intensive than your average sexual assault case, you’re newer sexual assault case," she explains.

Detectives are tracking down witnesses, evidence, the victim, the suspect, original reports - and all up against the ticking clock of the statute of limitations. But somehow, Seattle Police are managing.

So far SPD has had about 150 CODIS hits on their backlogged kits. From that number, about 60 cases were reopened. Two serial rapist cases were detected, and there have been been six arrests.

It's a great accomplishment, advocates say, but more could be done if the resources existed.

“If I had specific detectives, ones that were specific to cold cases, that would be very helpful,” says Sgt. Monroe.

Rep. Orwall agrees.

“If we’ve gone through the process and given survivors hope and tested their sexual assault kits, we owe it to them to investigate and if possible prosecute the cases. If we don’t follow up with those additional steps, then we really haven’t supported that survivor,” says Orwall.

While this story shows that many local agencies need additional resources, others told us they feel they don’t need help working their cold case sexual assaults, because many of the cases will not be reopened after DNA comes back. This is where the issue becomes very complex. Q13 News will have that story for you later this week.