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Editorial: A just outcome for Wisconsin with sexual-assault kits

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//December 15, 2021//

Editorial: A just outcome for Wisconsin with sexual-assault kits

By: Dan Shaw, [email protected]//December 15, 2021//

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Last week’s final steps to enact a law regarding the state’s processing of sexual assault kits was the right move for Wisconsin in both the legal and moral senses of the word. It is partial fulfillment of one of humanity’s oldest legal aphorisms: Justice, justice shall you pursue.

There was never any real disagreement over the need for such a bill. It had broad support from both parties in Madison, as well as advocates and the agencies that assist victims of sexual violence. The breakdown was, predictably, political bickering. It stretched what should have been a quick process into a multi-year slog.

Sexual assault kits are essential for the successful apprehension of predators and the prosecution of those who would prey on others. By passing the law, Wisconsin has enacted formal policies for the processing and retention of the kits. The latter is more important than it may seem.

While DNA evidence has been commonplace in courtrooms for several decades, the scientific advances in that time now allow accurate testing of much smaller samples than they once required. Investigators who may have been hamstrung at one point can reopen and pursue cases successfully because of those advances. The result is justice for victims and a safer society for us all.

Far too many states have seen those bits of evidence languish, untested and occasionally forgotten. The delays mean missed opportunities, fading memories and a lesser chance of success when a case is eventually brought to trial. Wisconsin was not innocent of such lapses. The state found more than 6,000 untested kits about six years ago, including kits that had sat on shelves for a decade or more. Work in testing the kits wrapped up in 2019.

Wisconsin should not find itself in such a scandalous situation again. This legislation sets clear requirements for how law enforcement and crime labs must handle the kits. It’s straightforward and easy to understand. There aren’t any more excuses.

That was the point made by state Sen. Robert Cowles, a Republican. Cowles said the legislation was crafted to “systematically prevent a testing backlog of sexual assault kits from ever happening again.”

Attorney General Josh Kaul hailed the legislation’s enactment, saying in a statement that “Wisconsin will be safer” with the new law. And that potential extends beyond individual cases.

One of the most powerful tools a prosecutor has is the ability to establish a pattern of behavior on the part of a defendant. When jurors hear that a person accused of a crime has previously been accused of a similar offense, or convicted of one, it carries significant weight. Human nature encourages us to assume that someone who acts one way at one time will do so again later.

Sexual assault kits can help establish such patterns. While DNA evidence is not foolproof — not is it as absolute as one might think from police procedurals on television — it is strong evidence. It is something jurors often expect to be presented. Ensuring prosecutors have that tool is important.

It’s not just prosecutors who may benefit from the state making a concerted effort to ensure the kits are tested. The evidence generated from the kits can be exculpatory as well. While people often think of DNA evidence as pointing toward a suspect, it can also rule people who are erroneously accused out of the case. Our system of justice relies heavily on credibly convicting those who violate the law. It is in society’s best interests to ensure those who have not committed a crime are not behind bars, to say nothing of the wrongly-accused defendant’s interests.

It wouldn’t be accurate to say this law will solve all of the challenges faced when it comes to finding justice in sexual violence cases. There are far more factors involved than a single kit. But this removes what had been an unnecessary stumbling block for the courts. It will lead to justice in cases that would not otherwise have had such an outcome.

Should it have taken this long? No. And that failing by the Legislature should be noted. That fact does not erase the fact this long-delayed step has finally been taken, though. In a time when any significant accomplishment by the state’s political leaders is rare enough, we’ll take this as a reminder that legislators can, and should rededicate themselves to bettering Wisconsin.

– Eau Claire Leader-Telegram


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