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DOJ offers firmer numbers of untested sexual assault kits

File photo (WLUK/Scott Hurley)

MADISON (AP) -- The number of untested sexual assault kits on Wisconsin police department shelves is much larger than the state Department of Justice initially reported and could grow as hospitals turn in their kits, agency officials said Tuesday.

According to the department's website, an inventory of police evidence rooms completed in March revealed 5,800 untested kits. Audrey Skwierawski, DOJ's violence against women prosecutor, told the Attorney General's Sexual Assault Response team during a meeting that the inventory actually turned up 6,372 kits. None of the kits are connected to any open cases.

About 4,600 kits have been designated for testing, meaning the victim has consented to testing, she said. Of the remaining kits, 45 percent won't be tested because the offender has already been convicted and 38 percent won't be examined because the agency hasn't obtained victim consent. DOJ spokesman Johnny Koremenos told The Associated Press on Monday that 3,800 kits had been designated for testing.

More confusion ensued when Republican Attorney General Brad Schimel was asked if it was true that only 63 kits have been tested so far. Koremenos said a private lab had tested 50 kits and the state crime lab had tested another 13, but Schimel said Tuesday that he didn't know where those numbers came from. Skwierawski had to walk Schimel through the numbers.

Koremenos said in emails after the meeting that he provided the most up-to-date numbers the agency had on Monday. As for the question about how many kits have been tested thus far, Schimel didn't understand the question because the total number of kits tested adds up to 63, not 60.

Skwierawski said outside the meeting that the numbers fluctuate as police send kits to DOJ and the agency physically counts them. Hospitals also are still sending in untested kits, she said.

"(Counting kits) just doesn't lend itself to sound bites," she said. "We just keep getting new numbers."

Skwierawski said the agency plans to send 200 kits to the private lab per month and expects to have all testing done by the end of 2018.

The kits contain forensic evidence that nurses collect from sexual assault victims that could help investigators identify offenders.

Some of Wisconsin's untested kits date back to 1990. The kits have gone unexamined for a number of reasons, Skwierawski said. A prosecutor may have decided a case was too weak to warrant testing. A defendant may have pleaded guilty, negating the need for testing. Victims may have decided not to cooperate, forcing investigators to drop their cases.

A USA Today Network investigation in 2015 found at least 70,000 untested kits nationwide.

Wisconsin officials started exploring how many kits have gone untested in 2014 as victim advocate groups, chief among them the Joyful Heart Foundation, founded by "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit" star Mariska Hargitay, were pushing states to test unsubmitted kits in hopes of developing DNA profiles for serial offenders.

Democrats have blasted Schimel for moving too slowly on testing. But Schimel has said the state crime lab lacks the capacity to test the kits given the crush of evidence in current cases, forcing the agency to contract with the private lab where testing can take months.

Complicating matters is the department's insistence on getting victim permission for testing. Skwierawski said the agency needs victim cooperation to prosecute and moving ahead without them could alienate them. The department and the Wisconsin Coalition Against Sexual Assault have launched an outreach campaign urging victims to contact the agency.

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