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KARE 11 Investigates: COVID-19 puts rape kit reform in doubt

Though the legislation had wide bipartisan support, the chief author of the bill says COVID-19 has likely killed it.

ST PAUL, Minn. — Legislation to reform rape kit testing in Minnesota that had wide bipartisan support and seemed on track to sail through the legislature is all but dead, its chief co-author said Thursday.

“Unless [legislation] is directly related to COVID it doesn’t really have a chance right now,” said Rep. Marion O’Neill, a Republican from Maple Lake who has spent years on reforming how sexual assault cases are investigated in Minnesota.

However, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday expressed some optimism that it could still pass.

“The governor supports rape kit reform and it remains in his supplemental budget,” a spokesman said. “He wants to be able to sign it this session.”

Credit: KARE 11
Rep, Marion O'Neill says the COVID-19 crisis threatens rape kit reform.

O’Neill’s bill, introduced in February, would have required testing of all kits in cases reported to police, created a tracking system that allowed victims to get easy access to testing results, and moved kits not reported to police to a centralized storage facility.

It gained the support of nearly 30 other house Republican and DFL lawmakers. A companion senate bill also gained bipartisan support, including that of Sen. Warren Limmer, chair of the Judiciary and Public Safety Committee.

In late February, Gov. Tim Walz said he supported the bill and made funding for the measures part of his supplemental budget.

Rape kit reform would have also required $7.2 million in new spending over the next three years.

RELATED: KARE 11 Investigates: Rape convictions rare when victims are drunk or drugged

Even though that is a relatively small amount, O’Neill said it’s clear to her that lawmakers won’t support spending on non-COVID-19 legislation.

Credit: KARE 11
The estimated cost of the reform package was $7.2 million.

“This is a tremendous blow to victims of sexual assault,” O’Neill said.

The reforms came after KARE 11 reporting that began last summer, which revealed widespread failures across Minnesota to properly test rape kits, finding that potentially thousands of cases were never fully tested, kits were destroyed without testing, and victims are often left in the dark as to the status of their kits.

What happens to the reform measures moving forward? O’Neill says she doesn’t know.

“We cannot move this legislation forward without money attached, we can’t test all the kits without money attached, and we simply cannot obligate the state to more spending,” she told KARE 11.

If you have a suggestion for an investigation, or want to blow the whistle on fraud or government waste, email us at: investigations@kare11.com

RELATED: KARE 11 Investigates: Governor supports testing all rape kits

RELATED: KARE 11 Investigates: Kits tested in less than half of reported rapes

RELATED: Lawmakers want fixes to rape kit problems exposed by KARE 11

RELATED: KARE 11 Investigates: Police in Minnesota destroyed hundreds of rape kits, putting cases in peril

KARE 11’s coverage of the coronavirus is rooted in Facts, not Fear. Visit kare11.com/coronavirus for comprehensive coverage, find out what you need to know about the Midwest specifically, learn more about the symptoms, and see what companies in Minnesota are hiring. Have a question? Text it to us at 763-797-7215. And get the latest coronavirus updates sent right to your inbox every morning. Subscribe to the KARE 11 Sunrise newsletter here. Help local families in need: www.kare11.com/give11

The state of Minnesota has set up a hotline for general questions about coronavirus at 651-201-3920 or 1-800-657-3903, available 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.

There is also a data portal online at mn.gov/covid19.