BILLINGS- A major federal grant will help Montana get all untested rape kits tested after a robust mission several years ago by the Montana Department of Justice to create a sex assault task force.
The $2.1 million grant will help Attorney General Austin Knudsen crack down on violent crime, something he says continues to rise.
“The idea here is we can get into these kits that didn’t go anywhere, we can reopen them, we can get some justice in these cold cases, hopefully get them hot again and bring some perpetrators to justice,” said Knudsen.
In Montana, sexual assault kits sat on the shelves of evidence facilities for years. But through the work of the state’s sexual assault task force, started in 2015, 1,252 untested rape kits were collected from jurisdictions across Montana. That work put a major dent in a dark period of time for victims seeking justice.
“We had a backlog of sexual assault test kits that were taken but never tested,” said Knudsen.
But the darkness remains for some victims, because some 341 remain untested, according to the Montana Department of Justice, and 2,348 kits are partially tested, as identified by law enforcement agencies, coroner’s offices and medical facilities.
The untested and partially tested kits have come from more than 70 agencies of all sizes across the state, and there do not appear to be any problem areas that stand out.
But the Montana DOJ has secured grand money to zap those numbers to zero, hiring a crime analyst, a coordinator and for the first time, a cold case investigator devoted solely to rape cases.
It’s a huge goal for Knudsen, one he says will help those victims find their justice.
“We don’t have a cold case team here in Montana, let alone one that is going to look at sex assault cases,” he said.
Bradley Tucker, an agent with the Montana Division of Criminal Investigation, says sex offenses are a huge part of the caseload for local agencies.
“Every case that comes in has to be tested,” he said. “Those kits are required to be tested within 30 days by law enforcement.”
And new legislation ensures kits are preserved for 75 years, improving response for victims.
“That’s going to be a game-changer for us,” said Knudsen.