Justice delayed no longer: West Virginia reports major progress with national Sexual Assault Kit Initiative
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia is pursuing justice for victims of sexual assault and other crimes through its continuing and successful role in the national DNA Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.
The Mountain State is on track to finish testing the nearly 2,400 sexual assault evidence collection kits inventoried as part of this multi-year effort. Many of these kits had never been submitted to a lab, remaining instead at hospitals or law enforcement offices. The ongoing testing has so far contributed nearly 300 profiles to the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS, the national DNA database overseen by the FBI. The West Virginia State Police Forensic Laboratory administers the state’s participation with CODIS.
“This has truly been a team effort,” said State Police Forensic Laboratory Director Sheri Lemons. “Everyone saw the importance of the initiative and the need to get the kits tested, with the goal being justice for the victims of sexual assault. The multidisciplinary team has and continues to work to understand, address and remedy untested sexual assault kits in our state.”
To date, 106 of those CODIS entries have resulted in hits, matching either an offender or evidence collected in another crime.
“Each of those hits represents a victim,” said P. Renee Graves, coordinator of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) at the Division of Justice and Community Services. “You look at the hard work that the labs have done, you can’t even fathom… to be able to see all of this move forward has just been amazing.”
And these hits have not been limited to West Virginia: results entered into CODIS have linked West Virginia kits to offenders or cases in a dozen other states as well as Puerto Rico. The State Police lab will continue to enter both test results and offender profiles into CODIS, with the understanding that more hits will occur in the coming months and years
“By testing the DNA in these kits and getting the results into the CODIS system, it’s possible for other investigators to get those leads, to learn that their perpetrator matches a case that was solved,” said David Miller, the crime lab’s forensic scientist supervisor. “So, it may have value beyond the immediate investigation, all across the country and not only in sexual assaults but also homicide and property crime investigations too.”
West Virginia’s participation in SAKI reflects a collaboration of Justice and Community Services, the W.Va. State Police Forensic Laboratory, Marshall University’s Forensic Science Center, the Prosecuting Attorneys Institute and the W.Va. Foundation for Rape Information Services (WVFRIS).
“As the state sexual assault coalition, we continue to support the thousands of sexual assault victims who bravely reported their assaults but have waited so many years for the opportunity for resolution in their cases,” said Nancy Hoffman, WVFRIS state coordinator. “We commend all the state and local partners who are working now to find justice for these survivors and who will be working with us to create a system that prevents this from happening again.”
The West Virginia partnership has secured critical grant funding from the U.S. Dept. of Justice and the New York County District Attorney’s Office, which have led the national initiative, starting in 2015. Thanks to this funding, DJCS developed a nationally recognized kit inventory and tracking data system that has been implemented by the State Police lab. The data system is designed to track kits from collection through testing, with current efforts to expand tracking through adjudication. The grants have also funded training for both law enforcement and advocates who assist victims of sexual assault.
“Our inventory was completed with 100 percent voluntary participation of our law enforcement,” said Graves, who noted that there are more than 600 such agencies statewide. “Having that in conjunction with everyone working together as closely as the State of West Virginia does – our law enforcement, advocates, the rape crisis centers, the labs – the way that everybody works together is just amazing to see because you don’t have that collaboration everywhere. That is going to help our victims moving forward, in both current and back cases.”
Some of the kits in the system date back to the late 1980s – before modern DNA testing or the FBI’s creation of CODIS.
“The State Police crime lab had the forethought to save this valuable evidence, believing it would one day yield results through technology not then available,” said Melissa Runyan, forensic science supervisor of the State Police lab’s DNA section. “Because of this thinking, kits that would have otherwise been destroyed were saved and are now able to be tested.”
Video news release: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J4FZwxeHyWM
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