The Jefferson County district attorney’s office is looking to ramp up its efforts to deal with the county’s massive backlog of untested sexual assault kits. A pending expansion to a 2016 federal grant would allow the office to increase the rate at which old kits are tested — and would allow for the appointment of a new prosecutor who would focus on those backlogged cases.
The office originally received the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance in 2016. An inventory, finished in September 2017, found that 3,876 sexual assault kits — which law enforcement use to collect DNA evidence after a sexual assault — had not been submitted for testing.
Since then, 275 kits have been sent to the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences for testing, at a rate of 25 per month. But a new expansion to the county’s grant — which could be approved “any day now,” according to Aryn Sedgwick, the county’s SAKI program director — would allow the county to double that rate, sending 50 kits per month to the state lab for testing.
So far, the SAKI grant has seen results. Of the approximately 50 reports completed by the Department of Forensic Sciences so far — testing the kits can take anywhere from six to 11 months, Sedgwick says — 11 have been linked to DNA profiles already present in the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) database.
“The whole point of getting the DNA from the kits is to test them and make sure that, if there are investigative leads that can be found through the kits that it comes up that way, that we can compare it to all these other DNA profiles that are already encoded,” Sedgwick says. Those 11 leads have all been sent back to the departments where the cases originated and are currently being investigated.
Those efforts will be helped by another pending grant increase that would allow the county to hire a prosecutor for a position specifically focused on the cases linked to the sexual assault kit backlog, Sedgwick says.
“There are a lot of parts that are on hold until we get a prosecutor that can really dedicate some time to it,” Sedgwick says. “The people in our office have been wonderful in trying to split time between what their current duties are and adding these (backlogged kits) in, but we’re at the point where we need somebody to take a deep dive into these cases.”
But even with these expansions of the SAKI grant — including a six-month extension of the grant’s first term, which will now last through September 2020 — Sedgwick says her office also is planning for a post-grant future. Roughly 1,000 kits will be sent for testing by September 2020, she estimates — but the “tremendous costs” of testing has her office looking for ways to prevent the program’s current momentum from slowing.
“We’re working with community partners to identify resources for the future to make sure that there’s no break in testing,” she says. “We don’t want to go back to only being able to do 25 a month, or where we have to stop testing until we can find more funding.”
And, she says, her office is continuing outreach efforts with the law enforcement agencies where the backlog originated.
“We’re trying to explain to them what the purpose is, to explain the research that’s come out,” she says. Many of the untested kits, she says, came from cases where the assailant was known —meaning that investigators may have thought that testing for DNA was redundant, not considering the potential that the assailant may be a serial perpetrator.
“Most of the departments, their backlogs reach back for years, and so (new research) that’s come out shows the importance of testing all kits and shows the connection between unknown assailants and known assailants,” she says. “That kit (of a known assailant) could go toward solving an unknown assailant case.”
“We’re doing that with very single department that we’re engaging through this process, and I think that’s one of the best pieces of the project,” she says.