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Federal grant will help Montana's Sexual Assault Kit Initiative

Posted at 5:57 PM, Nov 07, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-10 18:07:32-05

HELENA — In courtroom dramas, true crime podcasts, detective movies—sexual assault kits hold evidence. But for survivors of sexual assault, they hold pieces of possibly the most traumatic experience of their lives.

The Montana Department of Justice recently received a $2.1 million federal grant to continue testing and investigating these kits through the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative—or SAKI.

“It’s been a major push, since even the prior administration here at the Department of Justice to get all of these sexual assault kits tested, to get that evidence into the national CODIS system, and get some justice for these victims,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen said.

Since 2016, the state has been working to end the backlog of untested kits through SAKI.

Right now, Knudsen said 341 kits are untested and about 2,300 are partially tested. Inside those kits are evidence provided through sexual assault exams.

“They’re taking swabs, they’re taking pictures, they’re evaluating for injuries, and at the same time someone is needing to say exactly what happened to them,” Friendship Center executive director Gina Boesdorfer said. “And in a lot of ways, it’s reliving a lot of the assault that occurred.”

Sexual assault is not uncommon in Montana. So far in 2023, the Montana Board of Crime Control has recorded 356 rapes reported in the state. Of those reported rapes, 259 are from Montana’s six biggest counties—Yellowstone, Gallatin, Missoula, Flathead, Cascade and Lewis and Clark counties.

“These cases are always very difficult, they take a personal toll on you,” Knudsen said. “You get invested in them, and you want to see justice for these victims, they deserve justice.”

Testing done through SAKI has led to some cold cases heating up, like the 1974 murder of 5-year-old Siobhan McGuinness, which sat unsolved until October of 2020. Testing also helped identify Janet Lee Lucas in May 2021, she was a Jane Doe known as Christy Crystal Creek for 36 years.

More cases could soon get solved—the recent grant money funds a dedicated cold case detective, which is a new position in the Montana DOJ.

“We can maybe take a new avenue, a new look at them with this dedicated person, and really get in there and get some justice finally,” Knudsen said. “To me, that’s the most exciting thing here, and that’s what we’re focusing on.”

This investment and focus on testing and investigating sexual assault kits also means something to survivors of sexual assault.

“having these cases and kits tested and prosecuted really sends the message, we believe you, you don’t deserve this violence, we’re not going to tolerate sexual assault,” Boesdorfer said.