TARGET 8: Missouri battles backlogged sexual assault evidence

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COLUMBIA - When a test could help someone put his or her rapist behind bars, that test becomes of the utmost importance.

But unless the Missouri State Highway Patrol (MSHP) puts a "top priority" sticker on the evidence kit, it sits at the back of the line, behind (as of April 23, 2015) 277 other cases waiting testing within the laboratory. Testing is said to take an average up to six months.

That's six months waiting on sometimes very critical evidence in some sexual assault cases.

Missouri is knee deep in evidence that can potentially help solve cases of sexual assault and rape.

Boone County Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Andrea Hayes said the backlog of evidence within the MSHP exists because of an endless onslaught of new evidence.

"Due to the volume of testing that is needed to be done in any criminal case in the state of Missouri, there is obviously more testing needing to be done than they are able to do," Hayes said. "So that causes a time delay in getting any of the testing done, whether it be for finger prints, DNA, rape kits...any of those things."

Hayes said a majority of cases of rape mostly deal with consent issues, so DNA evidence collected in a rape kit would not help in terms of figuring out if consent was given by both parties before sex.

But for other cases, where the suspect is unknown, DNA evidence can mean the difference between an attacker still out on the streets, or serving time in prison.

After someone reports a rape to the local authorities, Hayes said authorities are supposed to take DNA swabs of the victim's genitalia and skin to try and find any evidence of the attacker. Photos are also taken of visible signs of struggle if they are present. This information is put together inside of what some people call a "rape kit".

That "rape kit" is then sent into the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS, a nation-wide database that creates DNA profiles for perpetrators of crimes.

For someone who was unable to identify a victim of sexual assault, this could be their best bet to find and apprehend their attacker. If their rape kit evidence brings up a match to a profile already within the CODIS database, Hayes said prosecuting attorneys have a new lead in the case.

With each "rape kit" uploaded to CODIS and with every new profile added, the risk of a repeat offender is potentially lessened.

Hayes said testing has already proven its worth in Columbia.

"Mr. [Dan] Knight had a case that had happened at the University of Missouri. It was an old case, where they had done a rape kit. It was tested, a profile was developed, and then it was stagnant for many many years," Hayes said. "Then we got a new case, the nature of the offense was that he pled guilty to was a misdemeanor but it was sexual in nature which required him to then submit his DNA. Once he submitted his DNA a profile was developed and then several months hit on that previous DNA from that old rape case from the University of Missouri, and then that was prosecuted successfully by this office."

Hayes said the rape kit was the key in that situation.

"The DNA played a key part. Had that not been done, we would have probably never been able to determine who that was, who was involved in that."

In Columbia, True North is a shelter for victims of domestic violence, which includes sexual assault.

Victims are welcomed in at any time of day, any day of the week to receive counseling and even a hotel or a safe place away from danger.

Executive Director of True North, Barbara Hodges, said victims of sexual assault deserve a swift shot at justice.

"Anything that could be done to speed up the criminal justice system will potentially help the victim of any kind of a crime will help them get justice, or at least be able to go through the process of working towards justice," Hodges said. "So anything to speed it up would be a benefit for victims."

Right now in the nation, states have begun to implement legislation in order to remedy similar problems like here in Missouri. Colorado recently approved House Bill 1020 which orders all authorities to submit "rape kits" within the first 21 days of them being obtained, and all previous rape kits that are untested to be put into CODIS.

State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, is trying to create a conversation about the importance of justice in sexual assault cases on the Senate floor in Jefferson City.

"Sexual assaults, especially on university campus has been a major issue here in Missouri. It's something that we need to deal with, and we need to deal with it swiftly," Nasheed said. "Because at the end of the day, every sexual assault should be investigated thoroughly and the way that we do that is being able to provide the funding that is needed here on the state level to investigate those type of crimes."

Nasheed said in order to get the backlog moving, changes would need to be made in the budget.

"It takes dollars, it takes resources, and I think a lot of legislators here truly believe and understand the importance of a thorough investigation," Nasheed said. "Especially when it comes to sexual assaults. All they need to do is ask for more funding and they will receive more funding during the budget cycle."

The MSHP scheduled more than one interview with KOMU, but canceled all of them.

They declined to comment aside from an email, which stated the number of sexual assault cases that are currently being tested, and those that are awaiting testing.