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Progress on Testing Sexual Assault Kits

Kim Murga; Elynne Greene; Lora Cody; Wesley Duncan; Joseph Lombardo; James Sweetin; Daniele Dreitzer
Members from the Nevada Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Working Group describe the importance of using a multidisciplinary, victim-centered approach in addressing complex issues that arise while responding to sexual assault. The team also describes the importance of utilizing available resources, including research and federal support from the National Institute of Justice, in making progress towards processing untested sexual assault kits.

Speaking in this video:

  • Kim Murga, Director of Laboratory Services, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
  • Elynne Greene, Victim Services and Human Trafficking Manager, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
  • Lora Cody, Detective, Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department
  • Wesley Duncan, First Assistant Attorney General, Nevada
  • Joseph Lombardo, Sheriff, Clark County
  • James Sweetin, Chief Deputy District Attorney, Clark County
  • Daniele Dreitzer, Director Rape Crisis Center, Las Vegas

Murga Around 2010-2011, we actually did an electronic audit to see how many untested sexual assault kits that we had in our custody at that time. So the total count for the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department forensic DNA lab is 6,500 untested sexual assault kits.

Greene Often when a case can't be prosecuted and we can’t identify a suspect, when we don't have enough evidence, any number of variables why a case won't be prosecuted, victims often hear “I don't believe you,” and that's got to be the worst. To know that something so horrific happened and they're not believed.

Cody: To be honest with you, a sexual assault, I think, is the most intrusive, most violent thing that can happen to a human being. So I felt that being a sexual assault detective, I could really go out and serve the community. I could really find a lot of these heinous criminals and put them in prison.

Duncan: And what you forget is that behind every sexual assault kit, there's an individual. There's a person who deserves to have that evidence tested in that kit instead of it just sit on a dusty shelf.

Lombardo: And who's going to show that concern for a case that occurred in 1985 and I saw it…without that task force are all those resources together speaking with the same voice I think there would…it would fall you would have a single point of failure associated with that.

Duncan: We got to see firsthand DNA technicians working cases. We got to see a sexual assault kit. We got to see what this problem really was, and then you think “Wow, there are 7,500 of these kits statewide.” And so it really brings reality to bear, helps you understand the urgency of the problem and the importance as well.

Murga: August-September of 2014, I received information regarding National Institute of Justice-FBI partnership associated with testing sexual assault kits in an effort to create national protocols on how best to handle the testing of the kits. I think it really became clear that a lot of these kits do have very valuable forensic information. And so a lot of the work that we initially have been doing has to do with utilizing backlog reduction grant funds to send some of those sex assault kits out for DNA testing, as well as augment the forensic lab operations in DNA with instrumentation resources, validation resources, the ability to bring on new instrumentation and new chemistry. Through partnering with the Nevada Attorney General's Office, we've been able to secure all the funds necessary to subject all the kits, all of the untested kits that we currently have in Southern Nevada to DNA testing by December of 2018. NIJ action research project with Detroit and Houston have provided extremely valuable resources associated with successful mechanisms to ensure testing all of the kits and creating a victim-centered approach.

Dreitzer: You know looking at the data and research that's come out of Houston, that's come out of Detroit, you know the jurisdictions that went through this process before we did, I very much have used…tried to use that information as a touch point to try to make sure that we are doing things in the most victim-centered way.

Greene: And when you have NIJ pulling it all together and disseminating the information, that's incredible because we're starting to hear about what other agencies are doing. There's always segments on the neurobiology of trauma and trying to understand that literally brain chemistry changes, so that the responses that victims initially give when they've been traumatized is often very inconsistent with what we expect. And that's often in the past been used to refute what they're saying.

Sweetin: The Attorney General leads this working group that includes prosecution, law enforcement, medical experts, forensic experts, mental health experts. And through this working group, the goal is to bring to justice individuals who have committed these unsolved crimes in the past, but to do it in a victim-centered approach, and that is to cause a minimal amount of trauma to the victims of these crimes.

Murga: We have an extremely high workload as many other law enforcement agencies do, but for us to have dedicated personnel to actually reviewing these cases, and they really do believe in this cause, and they can see firsthand the type of investigative information that we're providing based upon the national DNA database and work through the FBI-NIJ partnership, and other results that we've gotten back, to really see firsthand that, you know, these—these cases do matter, and we are providing links to serial predators and linking cases together from other states.

Sweetin: We got it—we got a cold case of a sexual assault that occurred…two young girls, a 19-year-old and a 21-year-old girl were in their apartment late at night; they were attending school, a local university. They immediately reported it to the police, nothing happened on the case for about 19 years, until we got a cold case hit. When we got the cold case hit, the police immediately attempted to determine where the defendant was. They found out that he was in Nevada State Prison. He was actually coming up for parole in about a year. He was there because of another sexual assault that he had committed, and as we found out, he was arrested and cases were dealt in at least two other sexual assaults that were committed. As a result of that, he was prosecuted and he's currently serving a cumulative 20-year-to-life sentence, beyond the sentence that he was already serving. And that's because of this cold case initiative, as well as the hard work of the police.

Murga: DNA backlog reduction grants have really helped with the efficiency, the overall efficiency, of our DNA program, as well as ensuring that we’re outfitted with to—to increase our capacity. It's taken a long time to gain attention, but there is a lot of positive momentum on this issue. It's my goal that, you know, in a couple of years once we've really come a long way with this process that we have a victim of sexual assault, they’ll have a very different experience at that time.

Lombardo: Well, if I could say anything to the past victims is please don't give up. I'm doing everything within my power to dedicate the resources to create the closure that you are seeking.

Duncan: We're going to do what we can to test these kits, and to bring your attackers to justice.

Cody: Analyzing these cases and finishing these investigations, you know—and you know, and I'm proud—I’m proud to be part of it. I'm glad—I’m glad that I was asked, and you know I’m hoping we're going to make a difference.

Greene: I think it really is helping victims to understand that it is a crime. And you know if you get shot, or if your home's broken into, people don't go, “Why did you have that really nice TV in your living room?” but they do question you when you’re a victim of sexual assault. “Why were you drinking?” “Why were you out so late?” “Why weren't you with your friends?” You know, why this, why that, and trying to find that reason that it happened to you, and its victim blaming. Many of these people were ashamed, and they don't have to be ashamed or afraid anymore.

Duncan: To those who would prey on our vulnerable in our community: that the crimes that you committed matter as well, and that we will not rest until you’re brought to justice.  

Date Created: September 8, 2016