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To Catch a Rapist

Law attempts to address Idaho's 'rape myth'

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Bingham County Sheriff Craig Rowland should take note that, effective July 1, House Bill 528 will become law in Idaho. In spite of his prior remarks regarding sexual assault, when he insisted "the majority of our rapes ... are actually consensual sex," he will, henceforth be required to forward all evidence of a possible rape to an Idaho State Police forensics lab or have a very good reason reason why he hasn't. And, no matter how much Rowland may think that the Idaho Legislature should "not dictate what we need to do," his office will also be required to document all rape kits, their status and have the Bingham County prosecutor verify the log.

Most Idahoans first heard of Sheriff Craig Rowland when on March 14 the eastern Idaho lawman stunned residents in his community, as well as readers of national media outlets like the Washington Post and Jezebel, when he said most rapes were consensual.

Outrage soon followed, with WaPo's headline "The Rape Myth That Lives On in Idaho" and Jezebel's "Idaho Sheriff: No Need for Rape Kits."

Rowland said he was pushing back against HB 528, a first-of-its-kind piece of Idaho legislation, calling for the codification of systems, procedures and reporting of sexual assault evidence. While he walked back his comments four days later, stating he "misspoke," Rowland held firm that a number of rape kits need not be sent to state forensics lab. He even portrayed himself as a victim, alleging he had become the target of cyberbullying from people who responded to his initial remarks.

Still, the legislation passed with unanimous support from the Idaho House and Senate and was signed into law by Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter nine days after Rowland's 15 minutes of shame.

"I wish I could say that I was surprised by Sheriff Rowland's remarks. I don't even know the man," said Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise). "That said, I truly hope to meet and talk with Sheriff Rowland about this some day. I look forward to that conversation."

Idaho's new rape evidence kit law will still give sheriffs like Rowland discretion to determine if a rape kit should not be tested if "there is no evidence to support a crime being committed," or if "an adult victim expressly indicates that no further forensic examination or testing occur." The law also requires a county prosecutor to independently review that decision.

In July 2015, USA Today and journalists from more than 75 Gannett newspapers conducted a nationwide survey of untested rape kits and found at least 70,000 neglected kits. An "agency-by-agency count" by the paper "covered only a fraction of the nation's 18,000 police departments, suggesting that the real number of untested rape kits in the U.S. reaches into the hundreds of thousands."

In November 2015, the Idaho-Press Tribune shocked readers when it reported "dozens of rape kits in Canyon County sit on shelves untested." The Press-Tribune revealed the Caldwell Police Department had sent only 65 percent of its rape kits for testing at the Idaho State Police Forensics Lab while Nampa had only forwarded 10 percent of its rape evidence kits for testing.

It turns out that by the time the Press-Tribune published its report, the man in charge of the ISP crime lab was already trying to address the issue.

"Actually, it was the summer of 2014 when much of the nation was becoming aware of huge numbers of untested rape kits in major cities across the U.S.," said Matthew Gamette, ISP Laboratory Systems director. "But ISP needed to be respectful. We're not an agency that oversees other law enforcement agency in Idaho, nor should we be."

That said, the officials at the ISP labs—with locations in Meridian, Coeur d'Alene and Pocatello—didn't know what they didn't have, at least when it came to rape kits that were or were not forwarded from local law enforcement agencies.

"Yes, I think that's a fair assessment," said Gamette. "But the public should know that there were no rape kits here at the forensics lab that were backlogged or not tested. We simply didn't have them because they had not been sent here"

Gamette, who joined ISP as systems quality manager at the crime lab in 2008 and rose to the lab's top job in 2014, began visiting local law enforcement agencies across Idaho in an attempt to address inconsistencies or delays of untested rape kits. Ultimately, Gamette decided to host a series of roundtable meetings with law enforcement officers, prosecutors, rape victim advocates, physicians, hospital administrators and representatives of the Idaho Supreme Court.

"I asked Matthew to sit in on one of those interagency meetings last year," said Wintrow, who was just coming off her freshman year in the Idaho House in 2015 after spending a good portion of her professional life as a women's rights advocate and the first director of Boise State University's Women's Center (renamed the Gender Equity Center in February). "The public should know that Matthew is a hero. He took the initiative on this where, quite frankly, no one else had before."

Attendees of those interagency roundtable discussions agreed something needed to be done to address the inconsistencies or delays of handling evidence of sexual assault. Thus was born House Bill 528.

Despite its unanimous passage through the House and Senate, it wasn't easy to accomplish.

"There was a lot going on behind the scenes. This legislation needed multiple rewrites," said Wintrow, who credits Gamette and Kelly Miller, executive director of the Idaho Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Violence, for doing much of the heavy lifting on crafting the bill. "And it came in at the 11th hour, just under the wire, to get consideration. Keep in mind that nothing like this had ever been tried before in Idaho."

Wintrow said she secured support for the bill from representatives of the Idaho Chiefs of Police Association while the Idaho Sheriff's Association indicated it would not oppose the bill.

These two forensic latent print scientists are part of the approximately 40 scientists who work in Idaho State Police’s crime labs in Meridian, Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello. - GEORGE PRENTICE
  • George Prentice
  • These two forensic latent print scientists are part of the approximately 40 scientists who work in Idaho State Police’s crime labs in Meridian, Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello.

As written, the new law requires that, unless a victim expresses otherwise, "sexual evidence kits are tested in a timely manner." As for "timely," the legislation directs local law enforcement to forward the evidence to ISP forensic services after "no later than 30 days." The lab must then complete its forensics exam within 90 days of receipt. The kit is then returned to the local law enforcement agency for evidentiary purposes.

"But our internal goal is to get them processed within 30 days," said Gamette. "Again, there may be a reason that local law enforcement may choose not to send the rape kit to the lab. And that decision is still in their hands. And the new law requires that second level of oversight from the county prosecutor."

Sheriff Rowland's comments notwithstanding, the question remains: Why had so many rape kits not been forwarded to the forensics lab?

"My sense is that some law enforcement agencies thought that there was no need to forward an evidence kit if identity of the suspect was not a question. In other words, they knew the suspect was the husband or boyfriend," said Gamette. "So we needed to pose our question in a different fashion to local law enforcement: 'What if that same individual, say if it was a husband or boyfriend, turned out to be a habitual rapist, but his DNA was never in the database?'"

The intense security of that database was one of the impressive aspects of the operation on display when Boise Weekly was recently granted rare access to ISP's Meridian crime lab.

"My colleagues that you'll meet here today are scientists. Not technicians, mind you, but scientists. They have scientific degrees with heavy emphasis on biology and chemistry. They think as scientists and they testify as scientists," said Gamette, adding that a fair amount of his colleagues are regularly called upon to testify in criminal courtrooms throughout Idaho.

The security and sterility of the crime lab is omnipresent. One of the heavily guarded rooms is framed by dozens of racks along its walls, similar in fashion to a massive library. Filling the shelves of those racks are folders—approximately 35,000 at last count—each containing the DNA swab of a convicted felon processed into Idaho's state prison system over the past few years. Each white folder includes the swab, fingerprints and demographic data. All of that information is analyzed by a crime lab scientist and registered electronically into a nationwide DNA database, but the room serves as the Idaho repository of DNA evidence.

"When I got here in 2008, we had about 4,000 samples in the database. But it has grown substantially over the years and the more samples that come in, the more likely that we're going to get a hit from an unsolved crime," said Gamette.

Thousands of Idaho records bump up against national crime lab databases each minute, and it's a good bet that the "hit" can possibly solve a years-old cold case or even exonerate someone who has been wrongly accused.

"It was just a couple of years ago, right here in Meridian, that police had identified someone they thought was responsible for a crime. But when we ran his DNA against the database, it turned out that someone from California happened to be in our area at that same time," said Gamette. "To their credit, investigators went in the different direction and the original suspect wasn't convicted."

On the flip-side, Gamette recounted a recent sexual assault of a young Idaho girl in the southern region of the state.

"And the suspects, a couple of truck drivers, thought they were being smart by dumping the body inside the Idaho state line before making their getaway," said Gamette. "But the database provided a cross-country link to help us discover that those truck drivers were from Florida. For an investigator, a lead like that is invaluable."

DNA testing is about to dramatically expand at the ISP crime lab. A second DNA lab has opened just down the hall and Gamette said he'll soon expand his staff, adding scientists in the coming months to accommodate the rape kit law.

"We'll be adding new chemists, a toxicologist and latent-print analysts. Our salaries aren't nearly as high as they are in neighboring states, but we've been pretty successful in keeping our team," said Gamette.

Further still down the hall, a team of analysts was combing through evidence in ISP's fingerprint lab.

"You may remember the case of some human remains discovered in the Boise Foothills," said one of the scientists who asked not to be identified for security purposes. She was referring to a Feb. 13 incident where a hiker found the remains on a path, which had been closed during the winter months.

"It was pretty amazing. I hadn't been involved in something like that I've been with ISP for three years," she said. "The skin was quite damaged; the top layer was completely gone. But a piece of skin from one finger helped us identify the deceased."

The woman was identified as Ronnie Parrott, 42, who had been missing since August 2015.

The Meridian crime lab serves all of the Treasure Valley. The Coeur d'Alene ISP forensic lab handles everything north of Adams and Valley counties and the Pocatello lab serves eastern and southern Idaho, including Twin Falls. Still, all DNA cases are forwarded to and worked at the Meridian lab. And those cases will now include a good number of untested sexual assault evidence kits that had been sitting on shelves in in Canyon County.

The Press-Tribune reported April 3 that the Caldwell Police Department would be forwarding its backlogged rape kits to the ISP crime lab in the next few weeks, while the Nampa Police Department announced it would soon submit about 90 untested rape evidence kits.

Meanwhile, no word yet the on the number of rape kits to be forwarded from Sheriff Rowland's Bingham County Sheriff's Office.

"But we'll know how many are there and how many have been submitted or not," said Wintrow, pointing to another part of the new legislation. "A detailed report will be submitted to the Legislature, beginning next January. And every rape kit will be referenced in the report. And if there is some reason that it hasn't been tested, they'll need to tell us why."