A 2015 survey revealed that the Duluth Police Department had nearly 600 untested sexual assault kits in its evidence room - the highest number among any law enforcement agency in the state.

As Mayor Emily Larson put it, the city was “called out for our delinquency.”

“We have a history as a city of being a really proactive community that is working towards helping people who have experienced violence find a new path forward,” she said. “It wasn’t in line with who we are to have these sex assault kits go untested and to have cases go so long without being touched.”

Three years after that state-mandated inventory, police have turned over the final batch of kits to the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.

The elimination of the backlog is the result of a partnership between the BCA and local police, prosecutors and victims’ advocates, with the support of significant federal funding.

Officials said Monday that the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, as it is formally known, has led to criminal charges against nine people - and, perhaps more importantly, new procedures to ensure that kits never again sit on the shelf for 25 years.

Candy Harshner
Candy Harshner
Candy Harshner, executive director of the Duluth-based Program for Aid to Victims of Sexual Assault, said victims can expect to play a much bigger role in cases moving forward.

“The systems have failed survivors and victims in many ways,” she said. “The SAKI project has been here to help rectify that and make sure there are changes in the future so this never happens again, and all of our partners are committed to that.”

The reasons for the backlog varied. A victim may have dropped out of contact or decided against moving forward. In some cases, kits were deemed unlikely to contain evidentiary value. Other times, it was a simple matter of priority amid a high caseload.

The BCA, which maintains the state’s crime labs, initially agreed to take on batches of 10 kits at a time. But with the testing process often taking three or four months, the backlog figured to go unresolved for years to come.

That was until September, when the agency adopted a new testing method known as “Direct to DNA” - a streamlined approach that allows lab workers to quickly determine whether a sample contains male DNA.

Duluth has been the first to benefit from the new technology, which BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said will be rolled out statewide later this year. The agency is now in possession of all of the city’s kits, though Evans said testing will likely continue into the fall.

Along the way, PAVSA advocates have been reaching out to the victims and offering services or the opportunity to speak with an investigator.

St. Louis County Attorney Mark Rubin said his office has received 14 referrals as a result of the testing of kits and the outreach to victims. Charges have been brought in nine of those cases, with two defendants already pleading guilty.

There is no statute of limitations for sex crimes when DNA evidence has been retained.

“What we’re doing is taking advantage of technology that allows us to go back and do justice,” Rubin said.

The SAKI program is the result of three consecutive grants totalling more than $2 million from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The funds have provided for dedicated resources including a DPD investigator and PAVSA advocates.

The funding continues through September 2020 - providing two-plus years to follow up on the large number of kits recently submitted to the BCA.

Duluth Chief of Police Mike Tusken
Duluth Chief of Police Mike Tusken
“Today is a beginning,” Police Chief Mike Tusken said. “It is not an end. There is a lot of work left to do. The work now is to reach out to each victim. The work now is to investigate these cases and ultimately offer healing to the victims and accountability to the offenders.”

Caroline Palmer, public and legal affairs manager for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said the work in Duluth has served as a model for other jurisdictions to address backlogs and establish protocols for handling sexual assault investigations.

Palmer said a new law in Minnesota also will assist in those efforts. The legislation, passed unanimously by the Minnesota Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Mark Dayton over the weekend, establishes deadlines for kits and extends the rights of victims.

In cases where a victim agrees to work with police, the legislation gives investigators 10 days to retrieve their tested kit and 60 days to submit it to a forensic laboratory for testing. The new law also allows victims to track the progress of their kits at all stages of the process.

“We now have systems in place, not only in legislation but in our own policies and procedures, to make sure this never happens again,” Tusken said.