RTP research group spearheads effort to clear backlog of sexual assault cases

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. (WTVD) -- The backlog of sexual assault test kits isn't just a problem in North Carolina, it's a national issue.

And the effort to not only clear the backlog but also to reform the way sexual assault investigations are handled is being spearheaded in Research Triangle Park.

"We have to understand the effects of trauma on our sexual assault victims. It impacts the way they behave and it impacts the way they report these sexual assaults," forensic researcher Patricia Melton told ABC11.

Melton works for the Research Triangle Institute International.

And out of all the research organizations in the nation the U.S. Department of Justice chose RTI International to run SAKI -- the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative.

"It's about creating policy and practice change that prevents the accumulation of unsubmitted sexual kits from ever happening again," Melton said.

RTI built the SAKI website, develops teaching materials, and maintains the database.

It is a database that has inventoried more than 70,000 sexual assault kits.

More than 50,000 of those have been tested and just more than 16,000 provided DNA results that could be uploaded to the national Combined DNA Index Section, known as CODIS.

Nearly half of those 16,000 profiles have been connected to other crimes.

Melton said that's because "sexual assault perpetrators don't just commit sexual assaults. They commit other types of crime. And they don't just focus in on unknown victims. They go from unknown victims to known victims, back and forth."

And, Melton said, the more criminals are put behind bars by the SAKI effort, the more researchers learn.

"We have never had as much information really telling us about the serial nature of sexual assault perpetrators until this program," she said. "And it's incredibly eye opening."

State leaders in North Carolina have also contracted with RTI to develop sexual assault investigation policy that will center on victims in part by keeping them in the loop on the status of their case.

Melton said that puts our state on the cutting edge.

"North Carolina is in an excellent position to be a national mentor, if you will, for improved sexual assault response," she said. "North Carolina is special because we have the support of the legislation that's coming down, we have great support from our AG's office, and we have the RTI research facility right here."

Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman is proud that a local research organization is spearheading the effort to help her prosecutors as well as victims.

"There are a lot of great initiatives that come right out of our backyard. And we've had a strong presence in the area criminal justice in this area. So it is not surprising," Freeman said.

Freeman said she also believes the way sexual assault cases are investigated needed to change with more of a focus on victims.

Many investigators have admitted that in past decades many sexual assault cases have been mishandled.

Melton said that an important step.

"I have the greatest respect for our law enforcement agencies who do take accountability and responsibility for what happened in the past and are embracing receiving training and education on how to move forward," she said. "And they recognize the mistakes that were made. It's amazing to me. It's happening. Change is coming."
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