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Minn. agencies say they’re following the law with untested rape kits

Since there is no state law dictating which evidence should be tested, each department has discretion

By Shannon Prather and Karen Zamora
Star Tribune

MINNEAPOLIS — Three law enforcement agencies are firing back after a statewide report found that they have the most untested rape kits in the state — an accumulation of evidence that has raised concerns.

The Anoka County Sheriff’s Office and the Duluth and St. Cloud police departments say the statewide report doesn’t show the full picture. They say that they’re following the law by saving every shred of evidence while processing only those kits that have value in a criminal case.

Moreover, kits aren’t tested when a known rape suspect admits to sex, or when a victim decides not to press charges.

“Our numbers reflect [rape kits] that we have intentionally not tested,” said Anoka County Sheriff James Stuart. “In review of our own process, I think we are doing it right. We are very driven by providing justice and taking care of our victims and so it’s certainly not a matter of being haphazard or reckless on our part.”

Stuart said that the number of untested kits in Anoka County “will never be at zero.”

The Legislature directed the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) this year to find out how many unprocessed kits were being stored at law enforcement agencies and why they weren’t analyzed for DNA.

Anoka County, Duluth and St. Cloud accounted for 1,379 — or 40 percent — of the 3,482 untested rape kits across the state. In contrast, St. Paul police reported none.

“We do test every rape kit that is associated with a case number,” said St. Paul police spokesman Steve Linders. “It can give us information about other cases.”

No Statewide Standard
Since there is no state law dictating which evidence should be tested, each department has discretion.

Rep. Dan Schoen, DFL-Cottage Grove, authored the legislation requiring the untested rape kit tally. Schoen said that looking through evidence rooms and case files and comparing how different agencies handle kits is an important conversation starter.

Schoen, a Cottage Grove police officer, plans to call a meeting next month to discuss the results of the rape kit inventory and the different policies among agencies.

“We’ve seen this nationally,” he said. “This is not just a Minnesota thing. It’s a push around the country.

“We now have the tools to find suspects like never before.”

Schoen said he’s not condemning the agencies that top the list, but he hopes their high numbers relative to other departments serve to provoke conversation about policies.

“If there is any doubt or question, don’t think about the finances, think about the victims,” Schoen said. “There could be value in testing those kits. You may find a serial offender.”

Anoka’s Analysis
Of 495 untested kits in Anoka County, investigators so far have determined that only four slipped through the cracks and should have been tested. Investigators, who are paging through case files, say they have about 20 left to review.

Reasons for most of the kits going untested, dating to 1985, include uncooperative victims, questionable confessions, suspects who argued that the sex was consensual and prosecutors declining the case.

“In my mind, if that kit doesn’t need to be tested and has no value in the case, why send that down to the lab and waste that money in the case?” Anoka County Sheriff Cmdr. Brian Podany said.

But the evidence is still there if needed, he added.

“We keep them all. If a victim reports something and 10 years later says, ‘I have come to terms with this in my life and I want to move forward,’ we still have the evidence,” Podany said. “It would be much easier to throw it out, but we don’t want to do that to the victims.”

The Anoka sheriff’s office recently purchased a third refrigerator to house its untested rape kits.

It costs about $1,000 to do the DNA testing, Podany said. Anoka County operates its own crime lab in cooperation with two other counties. The state BCA crime lab charges nothing to test DNA for agencies across the state.

The sheriff’s office conducts all death and sex crimes investigations in Anoka County, which has a population of 340,000. Investigators handle between 550 and 600 sex crimes cases a year.

Podany said that if an offender is convicted, their DNA goes in the national offender database. The decision to test a rape kit does not affect that.

Duluth police follow a policy similar to that of Anoka County.

“We reviewed every case. We are comfortable why they are here,” said Duluth Police Lt. Mike Ceynowa. “We started auditing all our kits in 2013. We saw this coming down the pike from a national standpoint.”

Of 578 untested kits in Duluth, 133 belong to victims who have chosen to stay anonymous. The rape kit is bagged at the hospital, a case number is assigned and it is stored at the police department. If the victim contacts police, the evidence is opened and tested.

“We really have the only truly anonymous reporting program in the state,” Ceynowa said.

Victims often go to the hospital for their immediate health needs after the assault, including disease screening and pregnancy testing. Many reluctantly agree to the rape kit with the understanding that it’s their choice to move forward.

“If the victim doesn’t consent to the testing, We don’t test it,” Ceynowa said. “It’s important for law enforcement to respect women’s rights to say ‘I don’t want to move forward on this,’ and have some control in their lives.”

Copyright 2015 the Star Tribune