- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 16, 2015

LAS VEGAS (AP) - Nevada lawmakers agreed Wednesday to allocate almost $3.7 million in settlement and grant money to test about 7,500 sexual assault evidence kits languishing in police vaults around the state, including some in Las Vegas dating back 30 years.

State Attorney General Adam Laxalt told the Legislature’s Interim Finance Committee the move reflects an evolution in the way police and prosecutors have approached sex offense cases.

Nevada is just getting started digging through the backlog, Laxalt said.

Wesley Duncan, an assistant attorney general heading the program, called the funding plan a good sign for sexual assault victims.

And, “It sends a message to offenders … who may have felt like they couldn’t be prosecuted,” Duncan said.

The effort comes after Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a law this year extending to 20 years the statute of limitations for reporting sex assaults in Nevada.

A DNA match can be crucial to prosecuting a sex assault case. The emergence and refinement of DNA evidence testing, along with the expansion of nationwide criminal DNA databases, are credited with helping to solve cases that might otherwise have rested on third-party witness testimony.

Most untested evidence-collection kits in Nevada are in Las Vegas, where police forensic lab director Kimberly Murga said she’s now on track to test every rape kit by 2020.

Early this year, officials tallied about 6,300 untested rape kits in Las Vegas and surrounding Clark County, an area with about 2 million people and 40 million tourists a year, including the Las Vegas Strip. Two untested kits in Las Vegas date to 1985.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department alone has about 5,600 kits to test, Murga said. The number put Las Vegas in the top four of one recent ranking of large U.S. cities with the most untested kits.

Officials think there are another 1,200 untested evidence kits in evidence vaults elsewhere in the state.

The money allocated Wednesday includes $1.7 million from a settlement this summer with JPMorgan Chase in a debt collection practices case, Duncan said.

Murga said Las Vegas police are also receiving a nearly $2 million grant from the New York County District Attorney Sexual Assault Kit Backlog Elimination Program in conjunction with the Joyful Heart Foundation, an advocacy group associated with “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” star Mariska Hargitay.

Another $850,000 for Las Vegas comes from a nearly $2 million U.S. Department of Justice grant, Murga said, with the remaining Justice Department grant funds to be used by several agencies to develop policies and procedures for testing, provide resources for victims and complete investigations.

Laxalt told lawmakers he may have to ask for more funding in the future if tests lead to a spike in sex crime prosecutions.

Testing can be expensive, from $500 to $1,500 per kit. Murga said Las Vegas arranged a volume deal with a lab in Virginia to test kits for less than $650 apiece.

Murga’s lab has about 60 full-time personnel and tests about 100 sex assault kits in-house per year. It uses a Texas firm to test others. The police forensic lab is a sister agency to the Las Vegas police crime scene investigations unit.

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