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Missouri rape prosecution initiative tests over 2,000 backlogged evidence kits

Jaclyn Driscoll | St. Louis Public Radio

An effort to shrink a backlog of untested rape evidence kits has made progress, with more than 2,000 having now been tested.

When Missouri’s SAFE Kit Initiative launched in 2019, there were three goals: logging how many untested rape evidence kits existed, creating an online tracking system and testing the kits.

Now, Attorney General Eric Schmitt said, through private labs, the state has tested 2,101 of the approximately 4,000 prioritized kits. The goal is to complete testing in the next year.

Money for the program comes from federal grants as well as state funding. Schmitt said the funding allotted for testing goes to private labs that are currently handling the backlog, which frees up labs within the Missouri Highway Patrol.

“What we didn’t want to do was inundate the Highway Patrol testing center because they’re handling the current kits, and we didn’t want to create another backlog, right?” Schmitt said.

The National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative awarded Missouri two federal grants, one in 2018 and another in 2020 to complete a statewide inventory, establish a way to keep track of kits and continue its testing efforts. Together, those grants totaled over $4.8 million. Schmitt said the state legislature also allocated around $2.6 million for the program.

Though a previous statewide inventory process revealed around 7,000 untested kits, Schmitt said the state is prioritizing kits that have existing police reports attached to them.

“With modern technology we can enhance the tools we have to actually go make these prosecutions, but we do have to do the investigations with those local law enforcement officials, the prosecutors and with the victims,” Schmitt said.

However for areas like St. Louis, which have their own crime labs and don’t rely on the Highway Patrol, testing kits is a different process.

Mary Beth Karr, assistant director of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Crime Lab, said the initiative has two definitions of a backlog. The first is kits dated between 1998 and April 30, 2018. The second is any kit collected before 1998, tested or not.

Karr said the department had no kits in the first category and 473 in the second.

“We didn’t have any rape kits that were sitting out on a shelf somewhere. They had all been turned in to the laboratory,” Karr said.

For the second category of kits, she said that though the testing was completed, the attorney general still wanted them counted because of when they underwent testing.

“Now they want us to go back and look and see which cases have the newest technology,” Karr said.

One part of the program that any organization handling rape kits is using is the statewide online tracking program.

For hospitals, sometimes where a kit is shipped depends on whether there is an attached police report.

Kathryn Harvath, a sexual assault nurse examiner with St. Louis University Hospital, said it had a total of 175 untested kits that have since been either shipped to be tested or for storage at a central repository.

She said most of the kits go to the St. Louis Police crime lab for further investigation. However, with this new initiative, there's more clarity on what to do with the kits without an attached report.

“It’s a really easy process to be able to say, ‘OK, we have a non-report kit here, that’s going to go off to the central storage unit.’ We don’t have to store it long term anymore,” Harvath said.

She said the storage unit, which is temperature controlled, has helped hospitals with their storage capacity and maintains the integrity of the kits.

“It also gives the survivors time to come forward,” Harvath said.

Follow Sarah Kellogg on Twitter: @sarahkkellogg

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Sarah Kellogg is a first year graduate student at the University of Missouri studying public affairs reporting. She spent her undergraduate days as a radio/television major and reported for KBIA. In addition to reporting shifts, Sarah also hosted KBIA’s weekly education show Exam, was an afternoon newscaster and worked on the True/False podcast. Growing up, Sarah listened to episodes of Wait Wait...Don’t Tell Me! with her parents during long car rides. It’s safe to say she was destined to end up in public radio.