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State clears backlog of thousands of rape kits

3-year project to process sex assault evidence results in 1,814 hits in database

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A backlog of more than 8,000 previously unprocessed sexual assault kits has been cleared, state law enforcement officials announced Friday.

The three-year project to process sexual assault evidence -- known as rape kits -- has resulted in 1,814 hits in a federal database, allowing federal, state and local forensic labs to exchange and compare DNA profiles of suspects across state lines, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The St. Johns County Sheriff's Office submitted 56 sexual assault kits to FDLE labs, resulting in 15 samples matching DNA already in the database. The Clay County Sheriff's Office submitted 20 kits to FDLE labs, resulting in six DNA hits. The Jacksonville Sheriff's Office submitted 1,944, resulting in 461 DNA hits in the database.

DATA: Individual county and city law enforcement agencies in Florida sexual assault kits tested

News4Jax has reported on many of the cases, including that of Mikel McClusky, who was released from prison last year on a lewd and lascivious battery conviction only to be arrested days later and charged with two counts of sexual assault in connection with a 2006 Jacksonville cold case. Another sexual assault kit submitted by the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office led to charges against Michael Simmons, who was arrested this year in connection with a 2005 case that happened in downtown Jacksonville. Simmons was already serving life in prison for another rape that same year. Gary Clair, who was convicted of three rapes in 2010, was already in prison serving a 23-year sentence, but now he faces new charges after investigators said DNA from a sexual assault kit this year connected him to another rape in 2010.

Attorney General Ashley Moody said catching up on the testing will help solve crimes and give victims peace of mind.

"To know that it is being acted on with expediency and with determination to move that case along is of the utmost importance when you are asking someone to come forward with such a vulnerable situation in their lives," Moody told The News Service of Florida.

Jennifer Dritt, executive director of the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence, called completion of the 8,023-kit backlog "remarkable" and said it "gives hope to victims of a crime that has made their bodies evidence."

"Victims of sexual assault who choose to get a forensic exam not only want justice for themselves, they want to ensure that their assailant isn't going to remain free to assault someone else," Dritt said in a prepared statement.

The issue drew attention in 2015 following revelations that thousands of rape kits had been collected but not tested across the state.

State lawmakers during their 2016 session approved a bill that placed time limits for the kits to be tested. The law, accompanied by $10.7 million in the state budget to process the untested kits, required local law enforcement agencies to submit kits for testing within 30 days of the beginning of investigations or after being notified by victims or victims' representatives that they wanted the evidence to be tested.

Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican who sponsored the 2016 legislation, said in a statement Friday that "multiple" cold case arrests have been made over the last three years.

"Victims no longer have to fear that their rape kit will sit on a shelf while their attacker walks the street," Benacquisto said.

FDLE officials told lawmakers in 2016 that financial constraints had led to the backlog.

"Moving forward, victims know that these will be tested in a prompt manner," Moody said. "Not only will they be sent to the testing facility in a prompt manner, they'll be tested and returned back to law enforcement for further development."

Meanwhile, Moody is warning Floridians about new at-home sexual assault testing kits.

"My biggest fear is that people will buy these kits, use these kits, thinking they can use them later in a court of law," Moody said. "I believe in some cases it is almost marketed like that."

Law enforcement officials said evidence collected from the do-it-yourself kits would most likely not be admissible in court and could lead to criminals getting away with rapes. Officials say victims should always have sexual assault kits collected by medical professionals who can store the evidence in a safe and sterile environment.