Closing unsolved sexual assaults through DNA testing is one of the major factors behind the state’s By Your Side initiative that gives victims of sexual assaults — going back decades in some cases — the assurance that their case won’t be forgotten.
But before that can happen, there is a lot of work to do.
Analysis of the thousands of sexual assault kits — often called rape kits — that have piled up at law enforcement agencies around the state is a daunting task, and one the state has not yet been able to solve.
“These kits have accumulated all around the state at 550 law enforcement agencies and a handful of hospitals throughout the state,” said Assistant Attorney General Audrey Skwierawski. “The oldest kit is in the 20-year range.”
Some of the accumulation is because the kits never needed to be tested, such as a case where the issue is consent, and not the identity of the defendant. Or if the defendant confessed to the crime.
Often, she said, those kits were never tested.
The evidence is still there, but no one knows what it will show.
Some people call this collection of untested kits a “backlog,” but Skwierawski bristles at that, saying the term “implies they’re sitting in the crime lab basement waiting to be tested.”
Mostly, these are kits that were never due to be tested.
Another issue, Skwierawski said, is how much DNA analysis has changed in the past 20 years. She compared modern DNA testing with what existed 20 years ago to the difference between a Commodore 64 computer and the modern desktop version.
Beyond the sensitivity of the tests, there is now an enormous national database of DNA profiles. The CODIS — Combined DNA Information System — allows law enforcement agencies to cross reference a profile against others collected, tested and uploaded into the system.
“Back in those days, the CODIS database was in its infancy, and it wasn’t on people’s minds that in the future we would have this nationwide database,” she said.
“Now if I were confronted with that same case, I would say, ‘We might know he is the one who did it here,’ and there could be two states away an unsolved case that has his DNA with it in which he has not been identified.”
That’s the key piece, she said, and one that has borne out in other states. When Detroit started testing its inventory of untested kits, it started getting hits that helped prosecutors there identify more than 500 serial rapists.
Kenosha County District Attorney Mike Graveley said this is an important part of the impetus to test the kits.
“This is a place where resources should be spent,” he said. “There’s a statistical correlation that is undeniable that a person who has committed a prior sexual offense is much more likely to commit another one than a general person in the population. If we have their DNA, we may actively be able to prevent future sexual assault.”
There are between 3,800 and 4,000 kits statewide earmarked for testing, and only two labs in the country are capable of testing the kits — outside of state crime labs.
“It is a capacity issue right now,” Skwierawski said.
The Wisconsin State Crime Lab tests between 800 and 900 kits each year, she said.
“If we dump 4,000 on them, you can imagine how many extra people or how long it would take,” she said.
So the state has gone outside, and is contracting with a private lab that can process the tests.
The state sends 200 kits per month to Bode Cellmark Forensics, and Skwierawski said it can take up to six months to get results because of the detail of the testing process.
While Graveley would like the process to be faster, he said he understands the situation.
“This attorney general has put a tremendous amount of resources into DNA lab analysis,” he said. “I feel that is something that is satisfactory on this case. The gold standard would be to get an answer immediately, but no one expects that.”