SEATTLE -- Much of the evidence collected during rape investigations in our state is never sent to the crime lab for analysis.
On Wednesday a group of lawmakers in Olympia heard testimony before a house public safety committee on a proposed law that would require timely testing of rape kit evidence.
Special Investigations Prosecutor Rick Bell flew halfway across the country to tell Washington state lawmakers what happened when Ohio began testing rape kits that had been gathering dust on police evidence room shelves.
"This is the one project in all my years of being a prosecutor where I've seen wildly successful results," Bell said.
Bell said after testing 6,000 old rape kits and putting the DNA results into a national FBI database of convicted offenders and suspects, police and prosecutors realized they had dozens of rapists going free in just Cuyahoga County, which encompasses the greater Cleveland area.
"We have indicted 244 people. This is amazing. This is leading the country right now," Bell said, "and so far of 30 % of the people we indicted are serial rapists."
Rep. Tina Orwall of Des Moines says she's worried that that serial rapists are going free in this state, because key evidence that might tie them to unsolved crimes never reaches the Washington State Patrol Crime Lab and is never put into that federal database.
Orwall has filed a proposed law, HB 1068, that would stop the practice of leaving rape kits sitting untested in police storage rooms.
"Within 30 days we want them (rape kits) sent to the lab and we want to work at giving the lab additional resources to process them quickly," Orwall said.
Rape exams are done on over 2,000 victims a year in Washington, mostly by specially trained forensic nurse examiners at hospitals. Police then collect the rape kits for possible testing during an investigation. But an estimated 5,000 to 6,000 rape kits are sitting in police evidence rooms statewide, some going back a decade or more, according to Mitch Barker, executive director of the Washington State Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.
Yet, Barker says testing all rape kits won't necessarily lead to more convictions and could overwhelm an already overworked crime lab.
"All this bill does is move kits from the law enforcement to the state patrol facility," Barker said. "We think it functionally doesn't accomplish anything. It certainly moves kits to another location, but they won't go into the queue any faster or slower than they would now because everyone prioritizes cases within about the same set of criteria."
Orwall's bill is more restrictive than Ohio's new law, which requires all rape kits be tested. Orwall's law would only require testing for rape kits taken going forward and victims would have to give their consent. The bill also establishes a work group to evaluate what should be done with the thousands of rape kits sitting in evidence rooms.
"We're talking about protecting lives. We're talking about catching serial rapists. How can we not protect the women and children in our state?" she said.