In 2015, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced that it would test the state’s backlog of 6,800 unexamined sexual assault evidence kits. According to Attorney General Brad Schimel, the exhaustive project is nearly complete: Today, the DOJ announced that it has submitted the very last of the unexamined kits for testing. The backlog should be clear by the end of 2018.
When sexual assault victims seek medical treatment at a hospital following their attack, medical personnel perform an exam and collect any evidence in what is called a sexual assault evidence kit, or SAEK. Commonly referred to as “rape kits,” these may contain DNA evidence like hair or bodily fluids that can connect a suspect to the assault.
Clearing Wisconsin’s backlog
But thousands of these kits lingered for years in storage, untested by local or state authorities. Schimel was slow to act on this backlog and even disputed there was any “backlog” at all, a claim found to be false by Politifact last year. Schimel is up for re-election in November and the backlog has become a political issue, with Democrats criticizing his delayed implementation of tests. In response, Schimelpledged to eliminate the rape kit backlog by sending 4,155 kits for testing in private laboratories. The DOJ declined to test the remaining 2,645 because the victims would not consent to testing or a suspect had already been convicted.
Prosecutors, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates hope that DNA evidence from the kits can be used in court to convict perpetrators. Of the 1,884 kits that have been tested, 75 have provided DNA that corresponded to a profile in the FBI’s criminal database.
DNA evidence can exonerate… or falsely implicate
These kits provide much-needed hope for victims of rape. They also provide hope for inmates who maintain that they have been wrongfully convicted of sexual assaults that they did not commit. The evidence in the kits may be used to find the real perpetrators and exonerate innocent men and women.
However, it is important to keep in mind that DNA evidence can falsely implicate innocent people. As we have discussed extensively on our blog, DNA evidence is fallible, especially if it is handled or analyzed incorrectly. DNA can easily transfer from person to person, leaving trace evidence even if the victim and suspect had never come into contact. Jurors are easily persuaded by forensic science, even if it is faulty.
It will be crucial to carefully examine every bit of evidence that is found in Wisconsin’s rape kits- to prosecute dangerous predators, exonerate innocent people and avoid wrongful convictions.