HELENA, Mont. — Montana authorities will begin clearing a backlog of hundreds of untested rape kits this month, some dating back to 1995, as part of the ongoing national concern over delays in processing sexual assault evidence.
Tens of thousands of rape kits, perhaps more, have sat untouched in evidence lockers across the country, some of them decades old. The revelations have prompted worry that authorities weren’t working urgently enough in investigating sexual assault cases.
Montana has 1,140 such kits awaiting processing, according to Attorney General Tim Fox, who established a task force two years ago to take stock of the extent of the state’s problem.
State authorities said some DNA evidence was never tested because victims declined to press charges. In other cases, preliminary evidence suggested a criminal act hadn’t occurred.
Nevertheless, state authorities said it’s important to process the untested evidence.
“It’s important that victims and survivors of sexual assaults understand that the state is doing its part to bring justice and hold offenders accountable,” said Chief Deputy Attorney General Jon Bennion.
“There will definitely be instances when the DNA profiles may not produce some kind of investigation,” he said, “but it’s still worthwhile so the state can learn lessons about this entire process and how we can improve prosecutions and investigations of sex assaults.”
Moreover, the information harvested from testing could add to the state and federal DNA databanks, which could be used for future investigations.
Last fall, the U.S. Justice Department awarded Montana $2 million to complete the work. State officials said unprocessed evidence would be a sent in batches to a laboratory in Salt Lake City for testing. The state also received an additional $284,500 to help state officials track kits generated by local authorities.
The state sought those funds after launching an inventory of untested kits across the state. In February of last year, state officials said a survey of 109 law enforcement agencies across the state revealed that at least 1,400 rape kits had gone untested. Some of those kits have since been tested or the investigations completed.
In recent months, Montana has hired a coordinator to help clear the backlog of untested rape kits, all of which have been collected from local authorities and are now housed in an evidence facility in Helena. The state also said it would hire an investigator to handle sexual assault cold cases.
It could take more than a year to test the kits, a task usually handled by the state’s own crime lab. But Bennion said the facility does not have the current capacity to handle the large volume of kits.
Montana officials submitted its inventory of unprocessed kits to federal officials in May, and were notified last week that it could proceed with testing.