Crime labs in Missouri try to keep up with sexual assault cases

By Crystal Britt - bio | email

CAPE GIRARDEAU, MO (KFVS) - It's a concern nationwide.  There is a growing number of untested rape kits in storage, some dating back more than 20 years.

There are almost 500 sexual assault, or rape kits waiting to be processed at the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

In Illinois, a spokesperson for the Illinois State Police forensic lab says they have more than 1100 cases in their system right now, but the lab says they don't distinguish DNA requests based on the type of case.

According to a recent CBS News report, the Kentucky State Patrol Crime Lab has more than 350 rape kits waiting to be tested.

The Missouri Highway Patrol has three crime labs, one in Jefferson City, one in Springfield, and one in Cape Girardeau.

There's an average turn around time on sexual assault cases, about 122 days.

It seems like a long time, but according to crime lab officials it's nothing compared to backlogs elsewhere.

Inside the Troop E Crime Lab in Cape Girardeau, lab workers have their hands full processing a number of crimes.

Drug cases make up more than 50 percent of the workload there, but the Highway Patrol says homicides and sexual assaults are priorities.

Behind a closed, and tightly locked door is evidence storage at the crime lab.

Included there are 70 pending sexual assault cases.

The Highway Patrol says 101 cases are pending at the Highway Patrol's lab in Springfield, and 323 in Jefferson City.

"I personally think the Missouri labs are doing better than a majority of other labs in the nation. We've been fortunate to undergo expansions of our lab systems in the last four years," said Bill Marbaker, Director of the Crime Laboratory Division at the Missouri Highway Patrol.

Marbaker says they've seen caseloads increase dramatically over the past four to five years mainly due to the expanded the offender database.

Legislation in 2004 expanded the collection criteria for people convicted of crimes to include people convicted of any felony.

"Our DNA collection because of that law increased from over 2,000 offender samples per year to over 20,000 samples per year," said Marbaker.

Inside the exam rooms at the Network Against Sexual Violence in Cape Girardeau is often times where the process begins.

"If you're an adult or a child and have experience sexual violence you can come here for free forensic medical care, forensic interviews, advocacy, and counseling," said Tammy Gwaltney, Executive Director for the Network Against Sexual Violence in Cape Girardeau.

They serve as a child advocacy and adult rape crisis center.

If someone is a victim of sexual assault an exam, including the rape kit, would need to be done quickly.

Executive Director Tammy Gwaltney says she hasn't noticed a huge problem with the testing of the kits, the kits that her clients actually choose to hand over to police.

"It isn't so much that cases get held up because of the processing of the evidence, it's the process of the judicial system that might take that case awhile to show up in the courtroom," said Gwaltney.

Gwaltney, however, says few cases actually make it that far.

"We only know that somewhere between 2 and 10 percent of all incidents of sexual violence are ever reported," said Gwaltney.

The Director of the Missouri Highway Patrol Crime Lab Division tells Heartland News there is room for improvement.

Bill Marbaker says he would like to see these rape kits get processed faster.

Something they're working on is getting federal grants to improve productivity by getting more equipment.

With that, they can add more work to the same amount of people by adding advanced technology.

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