Inside a nondescript warehouse in South Seattle, the King County Sheriff escorted Councilmember Rod Dembowski past thousands of pieces of evidence collected in crimes ranging from theft to murder.
Their destination on that day in early August was a huge cold storage locker where rape kits are kept, some dating back more than a decade.
The evidence in the rape kits was collected at hospitals from victims who reported being raped, then agreed to the invasive, traumatic exams hoping for justice. Police typically take custody of the rape kits, then send them to the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab for DNA analysis. Yet, nearly 400 of the rape kits have never left the King County freezer, a practice Sheriff John Urquhart defended.
"Three hundred ninety five have not been tested--that's correct," Urquhart said.
Asked why, he responded: "Because a detective on the case determined that there was no probative value from testing those kits."
Urquhart insists that having hundreds of rape kits sitting untested in the property room does not constitute a backlog because these kits were intentionally not tested.
"I don't have a backlog. I have 395 kits that somebody looked at, some special assault detective looked at and determined there was no probative value from testing that kit," Urquhart said, adding: "We determined we didn't want to overload the crime lab by sending a kit that perhaps was a husband rape situation. Now could that husband who raped his wife, which is a crime in the state of Washington, could he be a serial rapist? Maybe, but unlikely. And if he pled guilty or went to court then that case was solved and we didn't need to test the kit."
Urquhart said it's not always necessary to test rape kits in cases where the suspect is a boyfriend, or in cases where the suspect is already known to police.
But Councilmember Dembowski sees it differently.
"National stories and your work locally have shown the importance of taking a second look at untested kits, for their evidentiary value," he said, referring to KING 5's reporting this year on untested rape kits.
Testing kits, he said, "solved additional crimes, and that's something we're interested in doing here."
On Wednesday morning, Dembowski will submit a proposal to his colleagues on the county council's budget committee asking for $200,000 to pay for experts to review all of the untested kits and recommend which ones should go to the lab.
Asked if they should all be tested, he responded: "If that's what the experts tell us, we will. We want to take a look and understand what the best approach is and if that's what the recommendation is, we will find a way to do that."
Urquhart said he supports taking a second look at the inventory if the council provides funding to do it.
"With this extra money we're going to get with Dembowski, we're going to go back and look at every one of those cases and make sure the detective made the right decision at the time," he said.
But Urquhart said it's not as simple as just shipping all of the kits to the crime lab.
"The simplest thing for me to do would be to take them from here and send them to the State Patrol Crime Lab, so then rather than sitting on my shelf, they can sit on a shelf at the State Patrol Crime Lab that doesn't have the resources to test them," he said.
The crime lab is about to get a big infusion of money--$2.75 million to hire seven additional forensic scientists to test rape kits. The money is part of a new state law that took effect in June requiring all rape kits be tested moving forward.
State Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) sponsored the law and commends King County for taking action on its own.
"I do appreciate King County really coming forward on this issue and their leadership coming forward and looking at what's going to happen with those kits," Orwall said. "My hope is that, it's not just reviewing whether they should proceed on the kits, it's moving forward with best practice, which is to test the kits."
Orwall says that only by processing every rape kit and entering all suspect DNA into a national crime solving database can police and prosecutors connect the dots on the worst offenders—the serial rapists.
"You can't, on a case-by-case basis, connect someone to other crimes without uploading the DNA," she said.
Dembowski said he came to the property warehouse to see the rape kits first hand because each one has a name—and that person has a story and the right to know they're not forgotten.