Four new scientists could soon be sifting through DNA evidence as part of an effort to analyze the estimated 1,700 rape kits uncovered in the city of Minneapolis.
To clear the backlog, city and Hennepin County officials are expanding on a relationship they already had with the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), which conducts DNA tests in criminal cases.
The County Attorney's Office set aside about $200,000 in its 2020 budget to pay for two additional analysts to work specifically on reducing the backlog.
The city is poised to set aside the same amount to cover two more positions, for a total of four. A council committee on Wednesday approved the payment, to come from treasury forfeiture funds. The full council could vote on it as soon as Jan. 17.
"Everyone is focused on getting it done as quickly and effectively as possible," said Chuck Laszewski, a spokesman for the County Attorney's Office.
City officials announced in November that an internal review had revealed that Minneapolis had an estimated 1,700 untested rape kits, some dating as far back as the 1990s.
If they work at a typical pace, each analyst can generally test 300 kits a year, according to the BCA. But the testing times can vary from case to case.
The scientists begin their work by examining the contents of each kit, which can include swabs taken from various parts of the body, underwear or other items where DNA could be present. They check each piece of evidence to determine how much total DNA and how much male DNA are present.
"After determining how much DNA is present in each sample, typically the sample with the greatest amount of male DNA is carried forward to generate a DNA profile," said Jill Oliveira, a spokeswoman for the BCA. "This profile is compared to known DNA samples from the victim survivor and any identified suspects."
If suspects haven't been identified or if the DNA doesn't match a suspect, the sample is compared to profiles in the Combined DNA Index System, a national database that investigators can use to try to generate leads in cases where DNA samples are taken.
"Partnerships such as this one are forged not only for the benefit of the jurisdiction involved but for the benefit of all jurisdictions in the state," Oliveira said.
The Minneapolis Police Department and the County Attorney's Office will decide which of the cases in the backlog should be analyzed first.
Laszewski said they have developed a matrix "to help determine which kits are most likely to result in criminal charges." Those cases will be tested first, he said.
"However," he added, "we all are committed to testing every single kit as quickly as possible."
The County Attorney's Office has assigned two investigators to help determine which kits should be tested first and to help investigate any suspects that might emerge.
Laszewski said they consider the changes part of a sexual assault initiative designed to improve investigations and prosecutions.
A 2018 Star Tribune investigation, "Denied Justice," documented widespread problems in the investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults in Minnesota, including failures to interview witnesses, collect evidence or assign detectives to some cases. The series spurred changes in police and prosecutors' offices throughout the state.