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DNA testing on backlog of rape kits in metro Phoenix has produced results

PHOENIX – Stepped-up efforts to perform DNA testing on a backlog of rape kits have resulted in 14 indictments, including seven convictions, in metro Phoenix since 2016, according to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office.

The backlog resulted in part from a policy that dictated testing of sexual assault evidence only when the suspect was unknown, MCAO Special Victims Division Director Rachel Mitchell told KTAR News 92.3 FM on Wednesday.

That meant DNA from suspects who were identified by their victims was not entered into the FBI’s Combined DNA Index System (CODIS).

Mitchell said the philosophy has changed so efforts are made to test evidence from all sexual assault suspects.

“When their DNA is put into CODIS, it is matching up to other cases as well,” said Mitchell, whose name may be familiar from her role in the high-profile U.S. Senate hearing before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

“So now you don’t have a victim standing alone. For example, you may have two or more victims that have matched up through DNA.”

According to MCAO statistics, 93 percent of the county’s backlog has been submitted for testing since 2016, and 82 percent has been completed.

“Now that we have gone to a test-all philosophy, the goal is to not have any backlog,” Mitchell said. “But obviously that takes resources.”

The MCAO has received nearly $6 million in funding from two sources to address the issue.

The most recent grant was for $1.5 million in 2018 from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (SAKI) program, which also provided around $1.2 million each of the previous two years.

In 2015, the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office (DANY) awarded $1.9 million to the MCAO for rape kit testing.

“We’ve been using the funding from the DANY and SAKI grants to contract with outside laboratories, and then the various agencies have been sending untested kits to those laboratories,” Mitchell said.

She said the MCAO also was using the funding to hire a new detective, the agency’s third, and provide training for investigating sexual assault cases.

Nationwide, evidence in more than 100,000 sexual assault cases has been sent for DNA testing thanks to SAKI and DANY grants, spurring over 1,000 arrests and hundreds of convictions in three years.

One of those kits sat untested for 15 years in Tracy Rios’ case, though she’d given police the name of the then-friend she accused of luring her into a vacant apartment and sexually assaulting her in 2002 in Tempe.

Police told her they couldn’t charge him based on her word. She underwent a rape kit exam, but the investigation soon stalled, she said.

“I lost faith in the system. I thought they didn’t care,” she told The Associated Press on Tuesday. A message was left for Tempe police about the case.

Two years ago, she was told her rape kit had finally been tested, with money from the Manhattan DA’s office, and police were pursuing her case anew.

“It was amazing to know I was going to get justice,” said Rios, whose attacker is now serving a seven-year sentence for sexual assault.

The Associated Press generally does not identify people who say they have been sexually assaulted unless they agree to be identified, as Rios did.

KTAR News 92.3 FM’s Madison Spence and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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