More than half of the untested sexual assault kits recently accounted for in law enforcement evidence lockers across North Carolina have now been tested or are awaiting testing at private labs, Attorney General Josh Stein said on Tuesday.
Giving an update with legislators on the implementation of a 2019 law that set aside $6 million to test many of the kits, Stein said whittling down the backlog has resulted in at least 40 arrests, delivering justice to survivors of sexual assault. Stein said another $9 million is needed from legislators to eliminate the backlog entirely.
"Each kit comes from a person who suffered a terrible trauma and then willingly provided evidence ... we owe it to them to test their kits." Stein said at a Legislative Building news conference. "The General Assembly and law enforcement agencies across the state have made incredible progress in tackling this problem. But we have to keep working together to get across the finish line."
The problem of untested sexual assault kits sitting in police and sheriff's offices came to the forefront when Gov. Roy Cooper was attorney general. His department included what is now called the State Crime Laboratory. Cooper said he addressed problems at the lab, and previous backlogs from the 2000s were reduced.
Still, at the direction of legislators in 2017, an audit was performed that ultimately found 16,190 older kits in local law enforcement custody that could be tested.
Stein, a Democrat elected in 2016, said so far nearly 3,000 of these kits have been completely tested and about 5,400 sit in the queues of a private lab vendor, which is seeing testing demand grow nationwide due to other untested kits. More than 1,000 of those tests identified enough DNA to upload samples to a national database, and 45% of those samples landed matches, Stein's office said in a news release. The arrests related to the tested kits involve at least 58 assaults, as well as other violent crimes.
"It's one thing to promise to never forget the survivors of sexual assault, but it's another thing to act on that promise," Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican, told reporters. "We've been able to chip away at the backlog and to make numerous arrests in cases that had long thought to be unsolvable."
Additional money was always going to be needed to eliminate the backlog, but Stein said the need is greater because the state's price to get a private lab to complete a test has increased by more than 75%. He said the backlog should be fully eliminated by May 2023 if the $9 million is approved.
The State Crime Laboratory, which handles kit testing for current cases by law enforcement agencies free of charge, is seeing a marked increase in kit submissions. Stein wants additional funding so the state lab can hire six additional scientists specializing in DNA testing so that a backlog won't return. Daniel said lawmakers also are looking at time-saving measures for crime lab scientists so that they can spend more time testing, such as allowing them to testify remotely, rather than in person at courthouses.
Tuesday's news conference featured a sexual assault survivor, as well as Fayetteville Police Chief Gina Hawkins, whose agency received federal grants to tests previously unsubmitted tests in their custody. The police chief said efforts to seek justice won't end.
"However long the cases are, we want to tell you we will not stop working until the victims are treated as if they were ourselves," Hawkins said.