The Missouri attorney general's office has received its first DNA "hits" through the testing of previously untested rape kits, part of an ongoing initiative to clear the state's backlog.

The announcement was made last week by Attorney General Eric Schmitt, whose office has prioritized the SAFE Kits Initiative to help regional law enforcement offices clear a backlog of untested sexual assault kits. The first untested kits to be sent by Schmitt's office to the lab for analysis were from Southwest Missouri, although it's not yet been made public whether any of them were from the Joplin area.

"While this is still early in the process, we will work with police departments and local prosecutors to do what we can to hold offenders accountable and honor the courage of victims who have come forward," Schmitt said in a statement.

Schmitt's office began shipping untested rape kits from Southwest Missouri police and sheriff's departments to a lab for analysis last year. Rape kits are samples taken from victims with the use of a medical procedure, usually at a hospital, to obtain a sample that can be used to test DNA for a match to suspects for prosecution.

When DNA results were returned from the attorney general's first batch of rape kits, they were uploaded into the FBI's Combined DNA Index System, a national DNA database that tracks profiles of known offenders. Of that batch, 16 kits were eligible for upload into the system. Kits that were not eligible were found to have DNA that only matched the victim, or were found to have insufficient DNA to produce a usable profile.

Of the 16 kits uploaded into the DNA database, 11 "hits" were produced, tying the DNA profile to that of a profile already in the system. Those results will be referred to local law enforcement and prosecutors for potential investigation and prosecution, Schmitt said.

Joplin police Chief Sloan Rowland said his department hasn't yet been told whether any of the rape kits in that first batch were from the Joplin area.

His department in February had sent 11 previously untested rape kits collected from law enforcement agencies in this area to a lab for analysis. At that time, kits were brought to Joplin police from area departments, such as those of Neosho and Carthage, and the sheriff's departments in Jasper, Newton and McDonald counties.

The Joplin Police Department still has 32 untested rape kits in its possession, but not all will be eligible for testing, Rowland said. Some of the rape kits have already been cleared through a confession from the suspect, while others aren't subject to testing because the victim didn't want to report the assault, he said.

"We're always going to have some kits that can't be tested," he said.

While Joplin awaits further funding for the untested kits, police now are in the habit of sending rape kits to a lab immediately for testing if they're able, Rowland said.

"We try to send every single assault kit now, so there shouldn't be near as big a backlog going forward," he said.

The SAFE Kits Initiative, launched by the attorney general last year, is funded by a grant administered by the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance. It started by taking an inventory of untested rape kits across the state, finding that there were more than 6,800 backlogged kits that had not been tested. The attorney general’s office is also working on developing an electronic tracking system for kits.

"My office has done yeoman's work to inventory all untested sexual assault kits in the state of Missouri, develop an electronic tracking system and ship untested sexual assault kits to the lab," Schmitt said in a statement. "Despite challenges posed by COVID, we have continued this important work."

Schmitt said his office will provide regular updates on rape kit testing results.

Emily Younker is the managing editor at the Joplin Globe. Contact: eyounker AT joplinglobe DOT com.