In Minnesota's most ambitious effort to process untested rape kits, the Duluth Police Department has eliminated its entire backlog and submitted 415 kits for laboratory testing, a step that could open the door to justice for scores of sexual assault victims.

The kits, sitting in storage for as long as 25 years, were inventoried in 2015 after the Legislature ordered a one-time audit of all untested kits held by law enforcement agencies across the state. Departments reported more than 3,400 untested kits; Duluth had the most, with more than 550.

Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken and Mayor Emily Larson heralded the milestone at a news conference Monday.

"I want our survivors to understand that this is a priority," Larson said, holding up a white boxed rape kit. "Our survivors deserved better."

So far, officials said, Duluth police have re-engaged with 61 survivors and gotten 36 "hits" in the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, a national database of offender DNA. Nine suspects have been charged. Two have pleaded guilty.

Tusken said Monday's announcement is just a beginning. The city still has to get results back from the state laboratory on each kit, and then contact victims.

"The work now is to investigate these cases and, ultimately, offer healing to victims and also accountability for the offenders," Tusken said.

The announcement came one day after Gov. Mark Dayton signed a new rape kit bill into law.

Duluth was unique in Minnesota for the scale of its effort to tackle untested kits and reopen cases. It received more than $2 million in grants from the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Assistance.

In one case, 43-year-old Curtis G. Markkula pleaded guilty this month to one felony count of fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor, related to an assault back in 2010.

Now, the state Department of Public Safety along with several partners, including the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, has applied to the federal program for a three-year, multimillion-dollar grant. The pilot site will be the Anoka County Sheriff's Office, which has the second largest number of unsubmitted kits.

Shipping kits for testing is one step in the time-consuming process that includes finding victims, telling them that their kit was never tested and then reopening cold cases for investigation.

Duluth's grant helped fund five full-time positions in the police department, including an investigator and an evidence technician. It also paid for an additional forensic scientist at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which runs two of the crime labs in Minnesota that conduct DNA testing.

BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said Monday that the BCA labs have started streamlining their work to move kits faster and more cheaply, using "Direct to DNA" techniques that focus on the male DNA in samples.

The testing is not complete on most of the kits that Duluth police submitted for testing. It's expected to be done this fall, Evans said.

New reforms

Minnesota's new rape kit law aims to head off such delays and keep victims better informed. Under the law Dayton just signed, officers have 10 days to fetch unrestricted exam kits from health care facilities and then 60 days to submit them for testing. Officers must inform victims about the status of their kits and any findings, upon a victim's written request.

It typically costs about $1,000 to test each kit, a cost generally borne by the laboratory.

The state's new law does not require police to test every kit connected to a reported crime. It says officers don't have to test kits if they think the results will not add evidentiary value to the case, although there must be a record with the county attorney documenting why.

Ilse Knecht, policy director for the Joyful Heart Foundation and the End the Backlog campaign in New York, praised Dayton Monday for signing the state's new law. But ultimately, she said, states should aim for laws that have no such carve-outs. She and other advocates argue that, while testing any one kit might not immediately solve that particular rape, the DNA results can link a suspect to other cases the officers cannot know about. That can help law enforcement connect crimes and get serial offenders off the street, she said.