TARGET 8: Hundreds of sexual assault kits untested in Missouri

1 year 5 months 2 weeks ago January 05, 2016 Jan 5, 2016 Tuesday, January 05 2016 Tuesday, January 05, 2016 9:24:00 PM CST in Target 8
By: Emma Nicolas, KOMU 8 Reporter

COLUMBIA – Hundreds of rape and sexual assault kits in Missouri go untested for months or years at a time, while some are never tested at all.

The current state of Missouri’s system to prosecute rapists is failing survivors who made the choice of enduring the four to six-hour examination required to create a kit.

“And they do that with the expectation that the evidence will be used in their case, and that it will be handled appropriately and effectively,” said Ilse Knecht, the Joyful Heart Foundation's policy and advocacy director. 

ENDTHEBACKLOG is an effort by the Joyful Heart Foundation that is working to bring light to the amount of backlogged kits in cities throughout the U.S.

KOMU 8 reached out to the Missouri State Highway Patrol for these numbers and found as of Nov. 2, 106 rape and sexual assault kits remained untested.

Missouri does not require agencies to keep an inventory of untested kits. So, when KOMU 8 reached out for a breakdown of these numbers last April, they were unavailable

But these issues are hardly recently developing in Missouri.

The survivor

Joanie Schescke’s life as she knew it changed forever the night before Easter in 1991. She went to a nightclub in downtown St. Louis, with a coworker. The nightclub was packed and Scheske made her way back from the bathroom to find her coworker, purse and jacket missing.

Once he got Scheske in his car, Mark Frisella, who is now serving three 19-year prison sentences, attempted to get Scheske to have sexual relations with him. She continued to refuse.

Scheske was brutally raped and beaten, and only managed to get away four hours later when Frisella took off running. Scheske made her way into a nearby building where she was swarmed by 19 male police officers.

Scheske was taken to the hospital where a doctor performed a rape examination. She said they neglected to mark all her injuries, or take any pictures. Scheske said she remembered being told her kit had been processed, but she never heard anything else.

“It felt like the case just fell off the face of the planet,” Scheske said.

That changed in 2009, exactly 18-years later. Scheske got a call that evidence from a separate eight-year old case that was finally tested matched her rapist’s DNA.

Frisella was able to rape at least two other women in the time before he was put in prison.

The crime labs

"The people I've hired since I've been working here have only ever operated under a backlog," said Kansas City Police Department crime lab director Linda Netzel.

She said that's been the case since she began working at the lab in 1993. The lab started DNA testing just a year prior, and has continued to expand to each type of crime since then.

Netzel said that is a great thing in terms of protecting the community, but its also overwhelming the labs already lacking resources. The Joyful Heart Foundation revealed a report last May that showed a backlog of more than 1,300 kits in KCPD’s crime lab. 

"We just never seem to be making any progress," Netzel said. 

She said the lab is ‘woefully underfunded’ and ‘chronically understaffed.’ And with the amount of kits requiring testing the lab is left to make decisions on which kits get tested, and which do not.

Missouri law does not require that all kits be tested. Netzel said, philosophically, she believes most, if not all, kits should be tested, but that would prove to be an enormous challenge.

Captain John Hotz, the director of public information for MSHP, did not give a definite answer as to why the backlog exists in the patrol's lab. But he said time and demand were an issue.

MSHP's crime lab handles forensic testing for kits from 500 different agencies including the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the St. Louis County Police Department. 

The process of testing a rape kit is precise and time consuming, Hotz said. Each case is different, but typically a kit requires the following procedures: stain identification, extraction, purification, amplification/quantification, STR analysis, development of a DNA profile, data review, report writing and match/confirmation. 

Missouri crime labs allow for certain kits to be prioritized, meaning they would take precedence over the kits shelved for months or years. Kits are prioritized based on factors such as approaching court dates, requests made by officials or investigative officers, the severity of the crime and extenuating circumstances like a serial predator. In 2014, the MSHP lab received 571 kits and 48 of those cases were prioritized. 

 

A lack of clear policy

One of ENDTHEBACKLOG’s primary missions is to work toward policy reform at the state and national level. Knecht said that, while a lack of resources and funding play into the problem, it’s also an issue largely due to a lack of clear policy.

Knecht said many law enforcement agencies have either no policy or "unwritten policies," which leaves the decision on which kits get tested in the hands of crime lab employees, which is currently the case in Missouri.

“I think it’s important to remember that each one of these kits does represent a survivor who has taken the step of reporting the crime to law enforcement,” Knecht said.

Eleven states, including Texas and Illinois, have passed legislation to help reform the backlog. States are requiring that the amount of backlogged kits are counted, and then implementing steps to eliminate the backlog and develop a plan for future kits. Michigan put in place a 14-day time limit for new kits to be tested. 

“Because the lack of clear policy has really led to this problem, we believe that each state should engage in legislative reform to ensure that the policies are very clear and are state-wide policies,” Knecht said.

Missouri does not currently have any reform legislation in place. But the director of communications for Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, Emily Truscott, said she does expect to see the rape kit issue come up in some way this legislative session.

Truscott said early this December the coalition had a collaborative meeting with other representatives from law enforcement agencies, hospitals and the court system and discussed what is and is not working and how they can improve. But Truscott said adjustments to the system will take time.

“I think it’s a challenge to come up with a bill that will test all of the kits without causing unintentional problems at other points in the system,” she said.

Steps toward reform

Hotz said the MSHP lab is working toward streamlining workflow, which has resulted in a steady decline of backlogged kits. Hotz said the number of backlogged kits as of Nov. 2 is down from the 322 kits that were backlogged as of July 15. 

Netzel said the Kansas City lab will be able to outsource about 500 kits due to a grant they received from Manhattan District Attorney's Office. She said while she is also hopeful for more employees, the problem will not be solved simply by doubling her staff. Additional employees means Netzel's current employees would need to spend at least a year training the new comers which could in part set the lab back further. 

The U.S. Department of Justice is set to issue $45 million toward rape kit reformation to jurisdictions around the U.S, next year. Knecht said the likelihood of Missouri receiving a portion of this grant will be heightened if labs are able to audit the amount of kits currently backlogged.

Scheske is now working as one of the advocacy partners for Rape Kit Action Plan, an effort initiated by four nonprofits to determine how many kits are backlogged in each state. Scheske said she uses her story to help other people realize the severity of this issue. 

"Why wouldn't you want to test these kits? I always tell people what if this was your daughter, your wife, your sister or your mother. And they start to look at it a little differently," Scheske said. 

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