News that thousands of evidence kits collected during more than a decade of sexual assault investigations are finally being tested brings two old sayings to mind:
— Better late than never.
— Justice delayed is justice denied.
Both are likely to play out in Washington courts over the coming months.
Here's how the state got into this mess in the first place: For many years, women (and some children and men) who report they have been recently sexually assaulted have been examined at local hospitals and medical clinics, where semen and other evidence likely to contain the attacker's DNA are collected. The evidence kits are then given to police for testing to help identify and build a case against the assailant.
But many of the evidence kits were never processed. Faced with first-generation technology and a lack of available testing slots, police and prosecutors only followed through with the analysis if they thought it would yield results that would be of use in court.
By 2015, the Washington Attorney General's Office estimated there were between 10,000 and 12,000 untested kits sitting in storage around the state. That same year, the Legislature passed a bill requiring evidence collected in new cases to be submitted for testing within 30 days of collection (since modified to 45 days), and encouraged testing of the evidence kits held in storage. In 2019, a different bill set a deadline of Dec. 1, 2021 for the backlog of kits to be tested.
According to a Sunday story by Columbian reporter Becca Robbins, Vancouver police have submitted about 700 untested kits dating as far back as 1994, and have received DNA matches in about 10 cases, with five test results still pending.
Two "cold cases" from 2003 have resulted in criminal charges. A transient man with ties to Vancouver, Jacob Dimas, stands accused of first-degree rape in connection with a report by a woman who said she was raped by a stranger while walking in Vancouver. A Camas man, Fred Shreves, faces a second-degree rape charge in connection with an assault at a house party. Both await trial.
While it is appropriate and necessary for justice to move forward in these cold cases, it needs to be done with compassion for the victims. For some of these women, it can be difficult when old memories are revisited. Laurie Schacht, YWCA Clark County's sexual assault program director, points out that some victims may have done their best to move on from the harm, and now may have people in their lives who don't know about the sexual assault. Either way, reliving those memories can be very painful, particularly at trial.
Authorities will need to be mindful of this as they move on with testing the long-stored evidence, identifying suspects and contacting victims. Justice must be dispensed with sensitivity.
Most importantly, the state needs to take steps to make sure the backlog doesn't recur. The Washington State Patrol, which has authority over the state crime lab, has hired more technicians, purchased more equipment and outsourced some of the backlogged work to private forensic laboratories. But at the same time it receives about 125 new kits for testing in a typical month, and COVID-19 has caused staffing and training issues at the state lab.
In fact, the crime lab is unlikely to meet its December deadline, but a State Patrol spokesman said it should come close.
That could be reassuring news to victims who have waited too long for justice. But it will take diligence and oversight to make sure that the same predicament doesn't occur in the future.