No one should be a victim of sexual assault, but those that are victims deserve justice. A key component to achieving justice for survivors of sexual assault is DNA evidence. Having DNA evidence can increase the likelihood of a perpetrator being identified, build a stronger case in court, and prevent future sexual assaults, as sexual perpetrators tend to target more than one victim.
When a sexual assault occurs, the DNA of the assailant can remain in the body and clothes of the survivor. This DNA is collected during a sexual assault forensic exam at a hospital which, once completed, is sent to law enforcement for investigation. Once DNA evidence is analyzed, the lab will develop a DNA profile unique to a specific person. This DNA can then be compared to DNA from potential suspects or to a large database known as the Combined DNA Index System or CODIS. Currently, CODIS has more than 10 million DNA profiles and continues to grow. Each time a DNA profile is added to this database, it increases the probability of identifying and prosecuting perpetrators.
Unfortunately, there have been many challenges to the way DNA evidence was collected, stored, and used to hold perpetrators accountable. The main challenge was the backlog of unsubmitted sexual assault evidence kits. While many factors contributed to this backlog, there are two main ways kits were unsubmitted: kits collected by law enforcement were never submitted to crime labs for testing, or crime labs were overwhelmed by demand.
The Importance of SAKI Grants
This is where the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative comes in. Launched in 2015 by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, SAKI was created to address the backlog of unsubmitted kits across the country and prevent future backlogs by improving law enforcement training, evidence tracking, and best practices.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has been a leader in this initiative in Arizona since 2015 when the District Attorney of New York County awarded the office $1.9 million to submit 2,300 untested sexual assault kits. MCAO was able to efficiently use the funds and test 3,100 kits. Since then, the office has been awarded four SAKI grants totaling $6.2 million. With these funds, the office and partner law enforcement agencies were able to end the backlog of over 4,500 unsubmitted kits that had accumulated in Maricopa County since the 1980s. The funds have also been used to hire a program coordinator, three SAKI detectives, a criminal intelligence analyst, a part-time prosecutor, a victim advocate, and provided ongoing training to law enforcement agencies. SAKI funds received this year will support the ongoing testing of kits and increase the office’s capacity to assist with the investigation and prosecution of these cases by adding a fourth SAKI detective to our Maricopa County Cold-Case Sex Assault team.
The County Attorney’s Office has also been a leader in training and research. Our office in collaboration with law enforcement agencies and victims’ rights organizations, published the first Maricopa County Sex Assault Protocol Manual in 2017. The protocol sets forth best practices and training for professionals that work with victims of sexual assault, promotes the thorough investigations of these cases, and requires professionals to be trauma-informed. Since 2019, MCAO has hosted annual Maricopa County SAKI Sexual Assault Conferences and provided training for hundreds of sex crimes detectives, prosecutors, advocates, probation officers, and crime analysts. By sharing best practices and current research, law enforcement agencies and allied professionals are better prepared and educated to handle and submit kits for testing.
To prevent a future backlog, the state of Arizona passed a law in 2017 that requires hospitals to notify police within 24 hours of completing a sexual assault kit and requires law enforcement agencies to collect the kits within five days and submit them to a lab within 15 days of collection.
In addition to the trauma of the assault, thousands of survivors endure the lengthy and invasive sexual assault examination in hopes of finding justice and healing. Testing these kits maximizes the use of DNA evidence, but also gives survivors hope and a path forward to justice. The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office is committed to helping bring justice to sexual assault victims, and by doing so, prevent future sexual assaults.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted or is seeking help, call 911 immediately. Survivors can also contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-4673 or online at online.rainn.org
To schedule a sexual assault forensic exam, contact Phoenix Family Advocacy Center at 602-534-2120 or HonorHealth at 480-312-6339.