Tested rape kits bring justice, OR looks to stay backlog-free

Special Reports

Multnomah County DA's office uses new methods, 'victim-centered approach'

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Within a year of Oregon clearing its backlog of untested sexual assault kits, five Portland-area suspects have been convicted and several others are awaiting trial. At the same time, the state is trying to make sure another backlog never happens, using a combination of new methods and technologies.

More than 5,000 Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence (SAFE) kits were being kept in evidence storage when the backlog was discovered in 2015.

The Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office played a critical role in helping test years-worth of kits from across the state. They were able to do that with the help of grants, and by trying something new: outsourcing testing to a private lab.

Rape kit testing yields results in old cases

“The evidence in the past has always gone straight to the state crime lab,” forensic consultant Susan Hormann said. “By sending evidence basically from the DA’s office to a private entity, that is a process that law enforcement and even the state crime lab were not used to following.”

The DA’s office sent about 3,000 untested kits from more than a dozen counties to a lab in Salt Lake City for testing. This offered some relief to the Oregon State Police crime lab which was processing a couple thousand kits itself.

“We were able to get results on a large number of cases in a fairly short time period and for any kit that the outsourcing lab completed and it had no DNA in it, that meant the state police crime lab did not have to look at that kit at all,” Hormann said. In those cases, she would review the laboratory results and other evidence, looking for anything that might move the investigation forward.

Kits that did contain DNA were sent to Oregon State Police and possibly added to the FBI’s national database, CODIS. The database makes it possible for suspects to be connected to other cases across the country and sometimes even internationally.

In late October 2018, Oregon State Police announced the backlog had finally been cleared. But the work isn’t over yet. Multnomah County is still reviewing forensic results from the tested kits. There have been 10 indictments so far, according to Deputy District Attorney Tara Gardner.

rape kit backlog indictments
From top left: Jihad Moore, Chanh Van Tran, Curtis Williams, Steven Guy Tubbs, and Jose Oscar Rosales have all been convicted of sex crimes linked to previously untested SAFE kits (Multnomah County DA’s Office)

Jihad Moore, Chanh Van Tran, Curtis Williams, Steven Guy Tubbs, and Jose Oscar Rosales were all convicted in 2018. Several other suspects are awaiting trial thanks to evidence from previously untested kits.

“It’s immensely rewarding to be able to bring justice to victims who have already waited so very long,” Gardner said.

Preventing future backlogs

In 2016, the Oregon legislature passed Melissa’s Law, which aims to prevent a future backlog.  

The law is named for Melissa Bittler, who was 14 when she was raped and killed in 2001. Her parents later learned there were rape kits from years before Melissa’s attack that contained the killer’s DNA. But those rape kits had not been tested.

melissa-bittler
Melissa Bittler was 14 when she was raped and murdered in 2001 (Undated courtesy photo)

The law added staffing to OSP’s forensic division and created stricter requirements for current kit testing. It mandates certain cases moving forward be sent to the OSP forensic lab for testing within a specific time frame.

A national group that works to end the backlog of untested kits recently praised Oregon for its progress. The Joyful Heart Foundation said the state met its six pillars of comprehensive reform.

  1. Yearly, statewide inventory of untested kits
  2. Mandatory testing of backlogged kits
  3. Mandatory testing of new kits
  4. A statewide tracking system
  5. Victims’ rights laws
  6. Funding for reform

The Portland Police Bureau used grant money to develop a system to track kits. Victims can also access the portal and see where their kit is in the process. It’s similar to a system being used in Washington.

The Oregon State Police crime lab, Multnomah County DA’s Office, and Portland Police are piloting the program right now, with the hopes of statewide implementation in July 2020.

“It’s a really powerful tool and I think it’s going to be very helpful in the future,” Gardner said.

tara gardner
Multnomah County Deputy District Attorney Tara Gardner (Hannah Ray Lambert)

These standards and tools are vastly more extensive than in previous decades. For example, PPB’s Rose Project asks “anyone who was a victim of a sex crime within the past 29 years and had a kit done” to contact them to check on the status of their kit. Why just 29 years? Well, it seems likely that kits done before then don’t exist anymore.

The Rose Project declined to be interviewed, but provided KOIN 6 with a historical timeline of DNA evidence standards. In the 1980s, evidence from felony sex crimes was held for three years. In the 1990s, the statute of limitations for felony sex crimes doubled to six years.

Now, evidence in sexual assault kits must be stored for 60 years by law enforcement agencies, according to Gardner. The statute of limitations for prosecuting cases varies according to factors like exactly what the crime was, the age of the victim, and what the law was at the time. The presence of DNA evidence greatly extends how much later a case can be prosecuted.

“I hope it shows the community that we take this very seriously, we take sexual assaults incredibly seriously. We want to make sure victims are heard through the process and are treated with the utmost respect,” Gardner said. “Going forward, we approach these cases from a very different perspective than law enforcement may have approached it 5, 10, 20 years ago.”

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