Untested 'rape kits' headed to lab thanks to grant funding

EUGENE, Ore. - After a sexual assault, a victim can go to the hospital and have a nurse put together a "rape kit", evidence like DNA used to identify the attacker.

Many of these kits go untested for a variety of reasons.

Critics say that not testing the kits may have a chilling effect on victims - and may allow serial rapists to offend again and again, undetected.

But a $2 million federal grant will now allow police agencies across the state to reduce the backlog of untested rape kits.

When a rape kit is tested, the tiniest speck of evidence can help determine whether or not an assault was committed.

"Well, it tells us that there is potential to do DNA on this kit, that there is a foreign cell. Females don't produce sperm cells," said Odessa Seigel, a forensic scientist with the Oregon State Police.

The barely noticeable speck can help make or break a case - and that can mean convicting a sexual predator or acquitting them.

But since 1987, nearly 6,000 rape kits have gone untested in Oregon.

The reasons vary. For example, some victims ask to remain anonymous.

Other times, the evidence isn't necessary.

"If the suspect or defendant admitted the encounter, then those kits weren't tested," said Patty Perlow, the Lane County district attorney.

The federal grant will allow Lane County to process nearly 400 rape kits that have gone untested.

"We have an expectation that we will find that some kits should have been tested," Perlow said. "They're going to test all of the kits in Multnomah, Marion and Lane counties under the grant, and then enter the kits that qualify into CODIS, the database, for matching."

CODIS is the FBI's Combined DNA Index System. The hope is that, by entering the data,the state will be able to identify serial rapists and seek a conviction - or acquittal - inn cases that may have been missed.

Multnomah County has the highest number of untested kits - nearly 2,000 - and will be receiving the most money.

But Perlow said she is "pleasantly surprised" that Lane County will be receiving help with the backlog.

"I honestly can't predict what the impact is going to be in Lane County - except the community's confidence that we will have all of these kits tested and make the information available about what we learned from it," Perlow said.

To accomplish the work, Oregon State Police plans to hire two scientists to do the initial screening of the kits.

The kits will then be shipped off to a certified lab elsewhere, where the remainder of the testing will be done.

The testing process should take about 2 years to clear the backlog.

Untested rape kits by jurisdiction in Oregon

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