Montana Receives $2 Million to Test and Track Rape Kits

Survey finds 1,410 untested kits in evidence lockers around the state, including in the Flathead Valley

By Molly Priddy
Sheriff's vehicle. Beacon file photo

Last month, the Montana Department of Justice was awarded a $2 million federal grant to track and test all of the sexual assault kits — containing evidence collected from men, women, and children who have reported assault — sitting in evidence lockers around the state.

Sexual assault evidence collection kits, often referred to as rape kits, are used during a forensic exam on a victim. They are used to collect evidence from the victim’s body while a doctor or nurse conducts a thorough exam.

The issue of untested rape kits languishing in evidence lockers has caught fire around America, with states enacting new procedures or seeking grants to test the estimated hundreds of thousands of kits that were never submitted for DNA or other lab tests.

In 2015, state Attorney General Tim Fox appointed a Sexual Assault Evidence Task Force to figure out how many of these sex assault kits remain untested in Montana. The survey, conducted with sheriff and police departments through last year and into January 2016, found 1,410 untested kits in Montana.

The Montana Board of Crime Control then applied through the Bureau of Justice Assistance for a $2 million grant from the National Sexual Assault Kit Initiative Competitive Grant. Receiving the grant in late September means the state can inventory, test, and track kits that were not submitted to the state crime lab. The grant also funds research into why the kits weren’t tested, and will help with policy and procedure to avoid having a backlog. Testing each kit costs $745.

Of the 1,410 untested kits, the Montana Board of Crime Control reports that 23 percent were not submitted because there wasn’t enough evidence of a crime; 17 percent because the victim didn’t cooperate; 13 percent because prosecution was declined; and 19 percent for unknown reasons.

The study also found there are no standard procedures among the jurisdictions for how to treat victims, which supports “an environment of victim blaming.” There are also no standard protocols within law enforcement for the submission of kits to the crime lab.

Part of the grant will go toward fixing some of these issues, such as a law enforcement training coordinator who will teach Sexual Assault Field Guide development with evidence-based policies and procedures for investigating sex assaults.

Flathead County Sheriff Chuck Curry said his office participated in the survey last year, finding 50 to 60 untested kits in evidence storage. FCSO submits 12 to 20 kits to the Montana Crime Lab each year, Curry said.

Detective Commander Brandy Hinzman said the inventory of the items showed reasons why each kit wasn’t sent in.

“The majority of them were rape kits where the victim never followed through,” she said. “We’ll collect the rape kit and they’ll never return any of our calls. Those were the majority of the kits we had in evidence.”

Hinzman and Curry said the FCSO has never avoided submitting a kit for fear of a backlog and the time it will take; if the evidence is necessary for the case, it will go to the lab. There’s already about a six-month lag time for most tests anyway, Curry said.

“We don’t get our drug stuff back in a timely manner but we still submit it,” Curry said. “We certainly don’t ever say we aren’t going to submit (a sex assault evidence kit) because we won’t get it back soon enough.”

Hinzman said a majority of the cases that sex crime detectives see include delayed reporting from the victim, making a rape kit moot because the evidence is gone.

There are also cases in which evidence is taken for a rape kit, but it isn’t sent to the lab because it’s not a stranger rape; rather, both the victim and the accused say sex was involved but there are questions about consent.

Kalispell Police Chief Roger Nasset said his evidence lockers have 70 untested kits, with the oldest one from about 2000. Nasset said kits are sometimes not submitted for testing because they aren’t needed for prosecution, or because the victim declined to prosecute.

Sending a kit for testing is often a judgment call, he said, based on the evidence already present in the case. KPD also sends about 12 to 20 kits to the lab each year, Nasset said.

“You try to use your best judgment, otherwise the system would never be able to keep up,” Nasset said. “I think we’re doing exactly what we need to be doing with the resources that we have. If there’s ever a concern that something needs to be tested, we get it tested. We don’t hesitate there.”

All of the kits are stored in case the victims decide to pursue charges, or the evidence becomes relevant again in some way, Nasset said. Those requiring it are kept refrigerated.

In Whitefish, Police Chief Bill Dial said they found two untested kits in evidence when the attorney general did the survey. One didn’t have a label, and the other was the result of the victim not coming back to prosecute, Dial said.

They sent the unlabeled kit it in for testing anyway to see if any of the DNA pinged off the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) for any hits on other sexual assaults. There were no results, Dial said.

The other case in which the victim disappeared led to the Whitefish Police Department tracking down and finding the victim, who was told that if anything comes up to contact law enforcement. Otherwise, there is no suspect, Dial said.

Whitefish sends anywhere from five to 20 kits in for testing a year, Dial said. The town’s status as party central can mean more drugs to leave victims powerless, like Rohypnol (also called the “date-rape drug”).

“If you’re with someone who just all of a sudden starts acting weird, call law enforcement, get to the hospital and get urine and blood taken,” Dial said.

People may feel deterred from this due to fears of arrest or charges if they’ve got other illicit substances in their bodies, but Dial said those fears are unfounded.

“We’re not going to prosecute them,” he said.

In Columbia Falls, Sgt. Sean Murphy said there weren’t any untested kits at the police department, nor has anyone contacted the department about outstanding cases. Murphy, along with Whitefish Assistant Police Chief Mike Ferda, have been running the Columbia Falls Police Department since former Chief Dave Perry was let go in July.