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Governor announces Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence backlog

Heide Brandes / Red Dirt Report
Sen. Kay Floyd (D-Oklahoma City).
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OKLAHOMA CITY – Thousands of untested rape kits may be sitting in Oklahoma law enforcement warehouses across the state, but a new task force created by executive order Monday will address the backlog of sexual assault forensic evidence kits.

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin announced the formation of the Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Monday to explore the backlog of sexual assault forensic evidence kits, commonly known as rape kits, in the criminal justice system in Oklahoma.

The task force will conduct an audit of sexual assault forensic evidence kits in the state to determine the number of untested kits, and then identify possible improvements in law enforcement training, victims’ rights and access and the process for gathering and analyzing rape kits.

Currently, Oklahoma does not have a statewide tracking system for rape kits nor a mandate to test all rape kits. Officials estimated that only a quarter of rape kits are tested, leaving thousands of untested kits in police department warehouses across the state. In addition, current regulations are not clear regarding when and how to destroy untested kits.

The executive order was based on Senate Bill 654, authored by Sen. Kay Floyd (D-Oklahoma City), Sen. A.J. Griffin (R-Guthrie) and Rep. John Paul Jordan (R-Yukon), which essentially created the task force as legislation. The governor’s executive order instead creates the task force immediately.

“Sexual assault is a horrific crime, and we should do everything we can to support the survivors,” said Fallin in a statement. “This new task force will examine all facets of the issue of sexual assault and sexual assault forensic evidence kits to ensure that victims are able to seek justice and begin the healing process.”

Floyd said she was grateful for the executive order and the governor’s support to form the task force.

“This task force will identify the number of untested kits in the possession of each law enforcement agency by means of agency audits, and it will also identify funding sources that are available to assist in financing the elimination of any backlog of untested kits. This should reduce wait times when kits are tested,” she said.

Changes in Oklahoma

According to the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, more than 1,900 rapes were reported in the Oklahoma in 2015 alone. Sexual assault forensic evidence kits help collect and preserve, but there is no law in Oklahoma requiring these kits to be tracked or tested, and national data suggests some kits may never be tested. 

“Frankly, we don’t know what the numbers are and that’s the point of doing a study,” said Floyd.  “But untested kits could represent key evidence that can connect the dots in many assaults. It could mean more prosecutions and prevent additional assaults in the future.”

Floyd said she met with the governor’s office, the attorney general’s office, police, prosecutors and advocates about the issue of untested rape kits. On Monday, Fallin announced she had issued an executive order to create the task force.

According to the executive order, the task force will:

Examine the process for gathering and analyzing rape kits; identify the number of untested kits through audits done by all law enforcement agencies in the state;

Identify how to improve law enforcement training on responding and investigating sexual assaults;

Identify improvements for victims access to evidence other than sexual assault forensic evidence kits, including but not limited to police reports and other physical evidence;

Identify possible procedures for the testing of anonymous sexual assault evidence kits;

Identify additional rights of victims about the evidence kit testing process; and

Identify and pursue grants and other funding sources to eliminate the backlog of untested kits, reduce testing wait times, provide victim notification and improve efficiencies in the kit testing process.

Fighting for Oklahoma

In November, Danielle Tudor of Oregon met with Floyd and Griffin to talk about sexual assault. Tudor was beaten and assaulted by the Portland Jogger Rapist in 1979 when she was 17 years old. Although Richard Gillmore, who police think may have assaulted as many as 100 women and teenage girls, was caught seven years later as he worked to become a police officer, Tudor said she was never given justice.

The statutes of limitation for rape at the time was three years in Oregon, and although Tudor’s description of her attacker helped catch the serial rapist, she and other victims’ attacks were never prosecuted because the statutes had run out.

“I was silent. It took me 29 years to voice my voice. I didn’t come forward as a named victim of the Jogger Rapist until 2008 when his first parole hearing came forth,” Tudor said. “When I was first approached to come forward [to speak publicly at Gillmore’s first parole hearing], I said no. I never wanted to be known as Danielle Tudor ‘Rape Victim.’ I knew I made the wrong decision.”

In 2009, Tudor worked with Oregon legislators to overturn the statute of limitations on rape in Oregon to ensure that the Oregon parole board now hears from victims’ family members. She also became active in addressing the backlog of sexual assault evidence kits nationwide.

Now she’s making changes in Oklahoma after moving to Tulsa in September.

“I had worked on the same issue [of rape kit backlogs)] in Oregon and we’ve been very successful there,” she said. “I started reaching out to stakeholders in the state to share my passion and vision for this legislation and why it’s needed.”

That November meeting with Floyd and Griffin led to SB 654, which addressed the creation of a task force to explore the backlog of sexual assault kits in the state.

“The overwhelming backlog of DNA evidence nationwide is one of the biggest obstacles to prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence,” Tudor said. “And the backlog of un-analyzed sexual assault forensic evidence – or the rape kit backlog – is complicated and multi-layered, but there are two main reasons.”

The two biggest reasons for the backlog, according to Tudor, is that the evidence is collected but never sent to the crime lab or the evidence is never tested at the crime lab.

“Testing rape kits yields valuable DNA evidence that has been proven to identify suspects, bolster prosecution and, in some cases, exonerate the wrongly accused,” said Tudor. “It also increases the likelihood of identifying the perpetrator and prevents future sexual assaults from that person occurring.”

In 2014, the Accountability Project issued an open records requests to bring the number of untested rape kits in Oklahoma City and Tulsa to light. Through this request, the Accountability Project said it found a backlog of 3,783 untested kits in Tulsa. To date, it had not received any information in response to its request to Oklahoma City.

Although the OSBI says it has no backlog, other law enforcement agencies across the state aren’t so sure. Bill Citty, Oklahoma City Police chief, said each rape kits costs $1,200 for testing, a cost that is shouldered by the police department.

“One of the things this executive order does is help us request grants to help with the cost of testing,” he said. “The department has to pay for our DNA testing. I think the benefit of the governor’s executive order is to find out why they aren’t being tested, how many have not been tested, and what criteria is used.”

Tudor said that only six out of 1,000 perpetrators of rape serve prison time. In Oklahoma, a quarter of rape kits are tested, meaning that a rape kit has a 75 percent chance of not being tested. In addition, Oklahoma has no clear regulations on how sexual assault evidence is collected or how long the evidence is kept. State law dictates that evidence is kept only if there is a conviction.

“I think today is the first steps in restoring faith and trust in the criminal justice process for sexual assault survivors in our state,” Tudor said. “This will not happen overnight. This will take time and it will continue to be a process we will build on.”

Task force

The Oklahoma Task Force on Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence members are appointed by the governor and includes members of Oklahoma’s law enforcement agencies, sexual assault nurse examiners, nonprofits who work with sexual assault victims, the Oklahoma Sheriff and Peace Officers Association, representatives from the Attorney General’s office, Tudor, an attorney from a public defender’s office with criminal defense experience, two nonvoting members from among the members of the Senate and two nonvoting members from among the members of the House of Representatives.

According to Floyd, the task force will operate without a budget and with no cost. Each law enforcement agency will submit the results of an audit of untested evidence collection kits to the task force and the attorney general no later than Dec. 30.

In addition, the task force must report its findings and recommendations to the governor’s office, the president pro tempore of the Senate and the speaker of the House no later than July 1, 2018.

The Joyful Heart Foundation, a nationwide foundation that has created a national resource about the rape kit backlog, applauded “Oklahoma’s first step.”

“Joyful Heart stands with the tireless advocates who have fought for justice in Oklahoma. We applaud Gov. Fallin for taking this important step toward giving survivors an opportunity at long awaited justice,” said Ilse Knecht, Joyful Heart’s director of Policy and Advocacy.

“When the extent of a state’s backlog of untested rape kits is revealed, real reform can begin. Only after law enforcement agencies account for the untested kits in their custody, communities can begin to take steps to test those kits, hold offenders accountable, and bring justice to sexual assault survivors whose cases have languished, often for years—or even decades.”

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Heide Brandes

Heide Brandes is an award-winning journalist and editor with more than 18 years of experience....

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