Missouri law enforcement and other agencies have almost 7,000 boxes of evidence from sexual assault examinations, a federally sponsored inventory conducted by the Attorney General’s Office found.
The inventory includes almost 6,200 evidence boxes that have never been tested, and 1,700 held by agencies with no associated police reports, Attorney General Eric Schmitt said recently at a Columbia news conference. There are 830 kits, mostly from older cases, that have had some tests run but no DNA testing.
“These kits are not numbers,” Schmitt said. “They are not footnotes to reporting of crime. They represent real human beings who’ve suffered, confronted their fears, reported the assault and submitted to a kit — a kit that may be put on a shelf and remain untested until now.”
The inventory found nine 17 assault exam kits in Adair County that were untested, with 16 in the possession of the Kirksville Police Department and one held by the Truman State University Police Department.
A team led by former Judge M. Keithley Williams of Jasper County contacted all law enforcement agencies and hospitals in the state to determine if a preliminary inventory of 4,889 untested kits was accurate. The next step, she said, was to apply bar codes to maintain tracking of the kits and future additions to the inventory and begin testing.
The Sexual Assault Forensic Exam, or SAFE, kits contain samples that could yield DNA or fibers found left behind during a sexual assault that could identify the perpetrator.
The inventory and follow-up work is supported by a $2.8 million federal grant from a program that began in 2015 and has found an inventory of 64,000 kits in 35 states.
More than 47,000 of those kits have been tested, resulting in more than 7,000 hits on the CODIS database, a national repository of DNA profiles of convicted criminals.
The oldest untested kit in Missouri dated from about 1980, Williams said.
“The important thing to do is to get the profiles done, uploaded into CODIS and respond to hits,” Williams said. “One of the things we have done is to make sure there is an investigation to follow up on CODIS hits.”
The Kirksville Police Department said none of its untested kits are related to open cases, but come as a result of individuals who do not want to pursue charges, do not want to cooperate with law enforcement and in some cases object to the fact a kit was collected in the first place.
But with no statute of limitations on sexual assaults, the kits are kept in the event an individual wants to pursue something in the future.
Adair County Prosecuting Attorney Matt Wilson said in a perfect world all kits would be processed so that evidence can be entered in databases, but in reality law enforcement, prosecutors and those who process the kits are working with limited resources. Wilson noted that it often takes several months for sexual assault kits and other DNA evidence to be processed and returned. Adding to the backlog additional kits in cases that won’t be prosecuted would only further delay the discovery of vital information in cases that are working through the legal system.
To fix that, agencies – and especially the Missouri State Highway Patrol division that handles evidence processing – would need increased funding from the Missouri Legislature.
The report recommends steps for the state, Williams said.
The first is to create an evidence tracking system under the direction of Schmitt’s office and to mandate that local agencies participate, she said. The second is to create a centralized repository where the kits can be stored until they are tested so the integrity of the evidence cannot be questioned.
The evidence collected for each kit is put into a box that is sealed after the exam, with an inventory placed inside. The final recommendation is to put an inventory on the outside so its contents are known without breaking the seal, she said.
Schmitt and Williams were joined at the news conference by Jennifer Carter-Dochler, policy director for the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, and Elizabeth Herrera Eichenberger, executive director of True North Shelter for victims of sexual and domestic violence.
Carter-Dochler was recently asked whether she would be surprised if thousands of untested kits were found during the inventory. She said she told that person no.
“Why would Missouri be unique to what other states have experienced?” she said. “I would like to apologize to those victims that those kits have not been tested now. It is a disservice and a failure of Missouri. But everything is falling into place right so we are able to move forward that that doesn’t happen again.”
The inventory consumed about $700,000 of the federal grant and the creation of a tracking system is the next project that the grant will support. The grant should provide enough money to test about 1,250 of the kits in inventory, Schmitt said.
Some of the recommendations, such as mandating local participation in an evidence tracking system, could trigger constitutional provisions requiring the state to pay for any new duties imposed on local governments.
Schmitt will examine whether the state would have to pay for the tracking system, he said. The local law enforcement agencies are already required to submit the kits themselves for testing.
“The challenge is, if we don’t do something like that, there could be an attorney general 12 years from now talking about the same issues and having to travel X number of miles and the victims feeling they are not receiving justice,” Schmitt said.
Jason Hunsicker of the Kirksville Daily Express contributed to this report.