County ready to prosecute old rape cases

  • Of the 189 backlog of rape test kits submitted for analysis, 47 had DNA profiles loaded to CODIS, the federal Combined DNA Index System database. (Image courtesy Pixbar)
  • First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dale Ross talks during a recent meeting in Kailua-Kona. (LAURA RUMINSKI/West Hawaii Today)

HILO — Hawaii Island’s decade-long backlog of rape test kits have all been processed, and now it’s time to move onto the next step — investigating and prosecuting the cases.

Of the 189 test kits submitted for analysis, 47 had DNA profiles loaded to CODIS, the federal Combined DNA Index System database. Of those, 11 resulted in hits against known suspects, according to the state Department of the Attorney General.

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That compares to 441 DNA profiles statewide loaded to CODIS from 1,512 test kits, with 173 resulting in hits from known suspects.

The County Council is set Wednesday to approve $769,895 in federal funds to prosecute the cases, including hiring and training an investigator and a prosecutor in the county Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. The project is expected to be completed by September 2021, said Finance Committee Chairwoman Maile David.

First Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Dale Ross said the office is finalizing its required federal paperwork and working with the county Human Resources Department to recruit for the positions.

“The approach we are adopting is victim-centered,” Ross said. “We hope to provide that person with sufficient support so they can be on-board with the prosecution.”

Victims may be reluctant after time has passed since the crime, but there is no statute of limitations on Class A and B felony sexual assaults, she said.

Sexual assault victims — or, as the state calls them, “survivors” — who had a test kit done and want more information can fill out a form at http://ag.hawaii.gov/hisaki/home/contact-us/ . More information on the Malama Kakou program can be found at http://ag.hawaii.gov/hisaki/ .

Unlike some other states, Hawaii adds DNA to the CODIS system only upon conviction, not upon arrest. Successful convictions can add more data to CODIS, helping the nation identify serial rapists and preventing future sexual assaults.

The push for rape kit testing became a nationwide effort after its beginnings on Hawaii Island.

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The Joyful Heart Foundation, which was founded in Kailua-Kona in 2004, was the brainchild of Mariska Hargitay, who played detective Olivia Benson on NBC’s Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. It’s since spread to a nationwide effort, headquartered in New York City.

“Since 2010, Joyful Heart has made the elimination of the national rape kit backlog our top advocacy priority,” the foundation’s Ilse Knecht said in 2018 testimony to the state Legislature. “The stakes for the local community could not be higher; in Hawaii, one in seven women have been raped. Any sexual assault survivor who consents to an invasive rape kit examination does so with hope that it will lead to justice, and it is up to us to make sure every single rape kit connected to a reported crime is submitted to the laboratory and tested in a timely manner.”

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