By Emily Mieure
Jackson Hole News&Guide
Via Wyoming News Exchange
JACKSON — A new law will require an annual report of all untested rape kits in Wyoming and forbid agencies from destroying such evidence without a proper order.
Sen. Affie Ellis, R-Cheyenne, who sponsored the bill, said it’s a big step toward reforming how the state handles evidence in rape cases.
“We want victims who are willing to go through the intrusive process to know that their kit will be tracked and not be destroyed,” Ellis said.
Rape kits, which preserve DNA evidence, often sit untested on shelves in police evidence storage areas, leaving sexual assault cases unsolved.
Though the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation says more rape kits are being tested every year at Wyoming’s state crime lab, it’s unknown how many kits have gone untested.
Ellis said a Teton County rape case was one of the motivations behind the bill.
Donald Pack, a convicted serial rapist, was sent back to prison in February 2018 after DNA evidence was discovered by accident when a special agent was searching the Jackson Police Department’s evidence storage for clues in a missing person’s case.
Pack’s DNA was in the state system because he had been sentenced in 1976 for a separate rape.
The surprise DNA, which was discovered in 2015, linked Pack to unsolved rapes he committed in Jackson in 1974 and ’75.
He was sentenced to another eight to 12 years in prison for the assaults, 44 years after he committed the crimes.
Senate File 74 will require law enforcement agencies to report to the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation all cases in which sexual assault biological evidence is gathered.
DCI will then compile an annual statistical report of the information, and technicians there will keep track of analyses. The bill will also require the victim services division of the attorney general’s office to pay the costs of sexual assault examinations.
Ellis said that will streamline the costs of the exams, because as it stands local agencies or county attorneys foot the bill if a victim reports a crime immediately. If they make a cold report later, the state pays for it.
“There’s confusion there,” Ellis said. “And if local agencies are strapped tight maybe they won’t encourage victims to report.”
The exams can cost between $500 and $4,000, Ellis said.
“There is a lot of disparity between counties,” she said.
In Teton County sexual assault examinations range from $940 to $1,695, according to St. John’s Medical Center.
Ellis said a state fund to pay for the exams already exists.
“This just approved spending authority for the attorney general’s office,” she said.
Starting in 2020, law enforcement organizations will have to keep all sexual assault evidence until a court order allows them to destroy it.
“We’ve heard of departments in other states destroying these kits prematurely,” Ellis said.
Ellis believes police organizations in Wyoming are doing a good job sending in kits to be tested — but passing legislation that makes it a requirement will ensure evidence doesn’t get lost.
Jackson Chief of Police Todd Smith lauded the new law.
“When you look at violent crime in Wyoming, sexual assault is one of the more prevalent violent crimes that we have,” Smith said. “Even when we have to pay for exams it is money well spent.”
Smith said his department has made a habit of sending all rape kits to be tested within the same week or month the investigation begins.
“Detective Andy Pearson has adopted a process to do the work on the front end and get it sent off, and then it doesn’t get misplaced or lost or never tested,” Smith said.
Smith said the law won’t change much for his department, besides submitting an annual report to the state.
But he does think it will help solve more cases, like the Donald Pack rapes, because the more DNA that’s being tested in the state the better chances of finding a suspect match.
“Sexual assault goes under-reported, and if there is anything that law enforcement can do to make that process easier to make victims more likely to report and make them more comfortable, that is the goal,” he said. “I think good things will come from the legislation.”