HARRISONVILLE, Mo. — Law enforcement officials in Missouri said they’re making a dent in the state’s huge backlog of untested sexual assault kits.
The Missouri attorney general’s office is enjoying $2.8 million in federal grant money that’s helping fund the project, as a team from Jefferson City tours the state, collecting untested kits from rural law enforcement agencies.
M. Keithley Williams, a retired trial judge who works for Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, said some of these kits are tied to 40-year-old assault cases.
“The kits you see, the boxes you see, it’s not just a box with evidence on the inside,” Williams said.
Williams said the program sends those untested kits to out-of-state crime labs. The ones collected at the Cass County Sheriff’s Department on Wednesday are en route to a testing facility in Virginia.
At one point, the state’s backlog of untested kits totaled more than 7,000. Williams said this grant helps pay for 150 of them to be tested. Williams said the federal dollars come from the Bureau of Justice Assistance.
“We’re using a private laboratory because we don’t want to overburden the laboratories here in the state of Missouri,” Willams said. “The priority for the attorney general’s office is to ensure the 43-50 that were discovered that have never been to the lab are sent first.”
The reasons behind the lack of testing are many.
Williams said money has been an issue in some instances. Cass County Sheriff Jeff Weber said some kits have gone untested after accused rapists have entered plea bargains.
Weber said he appreciates this program’s mission, helping police work lead to more sexual assault convictions.
“Every case is built on evidence. The more evidence you can bring to bear on any case, the more successful you’re going to be in prosecution,” Weber said.
The federal grant money also allows courts to track each case and for federal investigators to build a database of potential repeat offenders.
Williams said the Missouri attorney general’s office has applied for an additional three years in grant money, having discovered more kits that need testing that anticipated.
Victoria Pickering, director of advocacy with MOCSA, a Kansas City-based advocacy group for rape survivors, said she’s a member of a work group tied to the federal grant, and she’s pushing for justice for survivors every day.
“The individuals who are involved take this very seriously,” Pickering said. “We think anytime a survivor comes forward and has the courage to submit to that very invasive exam after an assault, the least we can do is to make sure that kit is tested and sent to the lab.”
A similar program is being used in Kansas. However, a spokesperson for the Kansas Bureau of Investigation said the backlog of untested sexual assault kits there is much smaller.
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