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Bills would develop tracking for rape kits, alter evidence requirements at trial

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Legislation pending in the General Assembly would allow the Maryland Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Policy and Funding Committee to develop a plan to track progress of rape kits. ‘As much as we would like to see tracking happen soon, we think this is a very good and reasonable approach,’ said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault. (File photo)

Maryland lawmakers are being asked to approve a bill that would allow a task force on sexual assault evidence kits to begin developing a tracking system to monitor progress of the kits as well as apply for federal funding.

The Maryland Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Policy and Funding Committee, which was formed last year, is drafting best practices and recommendations for the testing and retention of the evidence, often referred to as rape kits.

House Bill 1124, which was before the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, would expand the duties of the task force to develop a plan for a tracking system and apply for funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Sexual Assault Kit Initiative, according to Del. Shelly Hettleman, D-Baltimore County, the bill’s sponsor.

Hettleman also said passing the legislation will help the eventual grant application show Maryland is committed to good policies for the kits.

Members of the task force said the bill falls in line with their goals and allows the task force to have flexibility in determining what will work best in Maryland.

“I think that at least allowing us to start on this and allowing us to go forward with the grant and seek the funding, which is always important, is a good start for getting a tracking system in place,” said Baltimore County State’s Attorney Scott D. Shellenberger.

At least one state, Washington, already has a tracking system in place, according to Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault, and approximately 20 others are developing one.

“As much as we would like to see tracking happen soon, we think this is a very good and reasonable approach,” she said.

The bill, which was not cross-filed in the Senate, did not have any opposition testimony Tuesday.

‘Proof by paperwork’

A second bill supported by the task force would change how the chain of custody for sexual assault evidence kits is proven in court, allowing prosecutors to submit paperwork signed by a forensic chemist rather than requiring in-person testimony.

Shellenberger said the legislation, House Bill 1125, was patterned after already adopted procedures for blood work in drunken driving cases and drug analysis in controlled dangerous substances cases.

Zenita Wickham Hurley, chief counsel for civil rights and legislative affairs with the Maryland Office of the Attorney General, said the task force considers the bill “low-hanging fruit” to eliminate the need to call non-essential custodians as witnesses.

But attorneys with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender opposed the bill, arguing it improperly shifts the burden of proof onto a defendant.

“It doesn’t feel like it’s a big leap but I think this bill really does create proof by paperwork and that’s a big deal in the criminal justice system,” said Ricardo Flores, director of government relations for the OPD.

A paper signed by a chemist should not be given “automatic weight and credibility” in the place of requiring the state to prove facts necessary to its case, he added.

The bill, according to Shellenberger, requires a prosecutor to notify the defense prior to trial if they intend to submit the documentation; the defense can demand the state call the chemist as a witness instead.

“It doesn’t take a defendant’s rights away in any fashion,” Shellenberger said.

House Bill 1125, also sponsored by Hettleman, was not cross-filed in the Senate.

House Bill 1121, requiring the task force to develop a process to allow a victim to pay for the testing of their evidence kit, and House Bill 1123, requiring the committee to develop best practices for testing and retention of the kits in accordance with federal recommendations, were also before the committee Tuesday.


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