Alaska seeks to collect more than 20,000 missing DNA samples from people charged with crimes

A man in a tie and jacket stands in front of a podium, flanked by three people.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy announces an effort to gather DNA samples from those charged with crimes against others and felons whose samples weren’t collected in the past. He made the announced on Tuesday at the Department of Public Safety Crime Lab in Anchorage. Colonel Bryan Barlow, director of the Alaska State Troopers; Blaze Bell, an advocate for survivors of sexual assault like herself; and Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, attended the announcement. (Livestream screen capture)

Alaska law requires that state and local law enforcement agencies collect DNA samples from all people charged with a crime against another person or a felony.

But over the past 25 years, that hasn’t happened in thousands of cases.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced on Tuesday that the state will now be going back and try to collect those missing samples as part of an effort to reduce sexual assaults and other violent crimes. He made the announcement at the state crime lab in Anchorage.

Deputy Attorney General John Skidmore said there are multiple goals in serving the victims of sexual assaults. 

“We want to get the kits processed timely, we want to get back to victims timely and we want to collect this DNA to help us solve those crimes,” he said.

For decades, this hasn’t always happened. The state announced for the first time on Tuesday the number of missing samples of DNA: more than 21,000. Roughly 1,500 of those people have died, so the state will be seeking the DNA of more than 20,000 people that it failed to collect in prior years. 

It’s a problem, because as Skidmore says, DNA can provide important evidence. 

“It helps us solve crimes where wouldn’t otherwise have leads for law enforcement to pursue,” he said.

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The state will start with those who were convicted of a class of felonies that includes violent crimes — including sex crimes —  a group that’s smaller than 600 people.

A 1995 law first required the state to collect DNA samples from those convicted of this class of felonies. The law has been amended eight times, expanding those covered. Skidmore said the frequent changes have contributed to the gaps. 

“So that’s made some challenges in terms of trying to figure out what’s supposed to be collected when,” he said.

It’s a crime to refuse to provide DNA that’s required under the law. Skidmore said the ability to prosecute that crime will help in collecting samples. 

“That’s one of the enforcement mechanisms that’s going to allow us to go back and collect what is referred to as that ‘owed DNA,’” he said.

The departments of law, public safety and corrections are working on the issue, along with local police. 

Department of Public Safety Commissioner Jim Cockrell said now law enforcement is collecting DNA from nearly everyone arrested for these crimes. And his department has started the work to find those whose samples weren’t collected in the past. 

“Government has an obligation to follow the law,” he said. “And regardless of the many reasons that these DNA collections were missed, we are focused on making our … state a safer place to live.”

The Department of Corrections will start by collecting DNA from those already in prison or jail. State probation and parole officers will collect samples from those on supervision. And anyone being booked for crimes covered by the law will have their samples collected. 

Dunleavy said he wants Alaska to no longer be known for ranking highly in sexual assaults. He said he had to deal with children affected by sexual abuse when he worked as a teacher. 

“I would strongly, strongly say to those that would even contemplate committing crimes of this nature on fellow Alaskans that the days of gettwing away with it are over,” he said.

State leaders also announced that the state is building a website where victims of sexual assault will be able to track the status of kits collected from their assaults.

Advocates for sexual assault survivors praised the announcement. They include Blaze Bell, a survivor who has worked with the organizations Victims for Justice and Stand Together Against Rape Alaska, or STAR. 

“This is really a full-circle moment for me as a survivor and I’m incredibly grateful that you are all coming together to help other sexual assault survivors,” she said.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Geran Tarr sponsored a law that speeds up the testing of rape kits. She thanked Dunleavy for the changes. 

“I have a vision: I want to wake up one day in Alaska where we don’t lead the nation in the rates of domestic violence and sexual assault,” she said. “I think this is a step that’s going to get us there, so I’m very grateful.” 

Anchorage Mayor Dave Bronson and Police Chief Kenneth McCoy joined Dunleavy in making the announcement. McCoy said he knows from personal experience the importance of collecting DNA samples. 

“I served for many years as a sexual assault investigator and I know first hand the damage caused by these horrific crimes,” he said. “DNA collection is a critical step in solving these cases and bringing closures to the survivors and their families.” 

The state estimates the initiatives announced on Tuesday will cost $2 million. Of that, $900,000 will come from the budget the Legislature already passed, while Dunleavy will ask the Legislature to approve spending $1.1 million from federal pandemic recovery funding.

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