Momma's Always Right column: Undeserved criticism of AG Schimel
I'm not the only voter tired of political rhetoric used to defeat opponents that stretches from misrepresentation to deliberate deception. One case is the undeserved criticism of Attorney General Brad Schimel, by his political opponent and the Democrat Party, over a project eliminating a 20-year backlog of untested sexual assault kits. This was brought to my attention when I recently participated in a voter survey.
In 2012, as a follow-up to an informal Department of Justice (DOJ) review of 6,000 untested kits, then AG Van Hollen created a sexual assault response team, a multidisciplinary group with experience in the complex issues surrounding sex crimes. Its purpose was to identify ways the DOJ could improve their processing.
Upon taking office in 2015, AG Schimel launched the Wisconsin Sexual Assault Kit Initiative (WiSAKI) for a more thorough kit review. Of the identified 6,853 untested kits, about 40 percent were not moved forward for various reasons, such as being wrongly designated or victims not consenting to testing. AG Schimel announced in May 2018 that all of the cases had been "submitted for testing, and [would] be complete by the end of the year." It took less than three years for Schimel to test kits that built up since the 1980s.
What's to criticize? Doesn't everyone deserve justice? Victims, the accused (some deserve to be cleared), and their families, all deserve justice. This evidence affects outcomes of cases. Opponents of Schimel think: 1) he should not have sought grant funding instead of legislative apportionment for lab staff, and 2) that test results have led to too few prosecutions. Both accusations are absurd, as is the statement by the Democratic Party of Wisconsin's spokeswoman Courtney Beyer: "In the years it took [Schimel] to simply do his job, survivors of sexual violence were denied justice and violent offenders were allowed to walk the streets of our communities."
First, Schimel avoided the delays of bureaucratic processes so that DNA analysts, who meet rigorous FBI standards, could be quickly hired. He secured a $4 million grant for testing in September 2015. Then the DOJ completed a statewide inventory of untested kits.
Collecting kits was time consuming. Unavoidable delays occurred as the cleared kits with various pieces of evidence piled up at the limited number of forensic testing labs used by many states.
As for prosecutorial actions? Testing results are only one part of investigating criminal cases. Once the results are sent to the jurisdictions they came from, further investigation can take months or years. Untested kits stored longer than the statute of limitations for certain sexual assault cases were only able to be used as entries in a DNA database for matches to other crimes.
Party opponents of Schimel either don't understand the complexities of evidence testing or they're fabricating non-existent problems. The truth is that physical evidence handling by Wisconsin law enforcement has improved thanks in part to training and policies created with WiSAKI. Victim consent is now procured before testing. Sexual assault kits, provided free of charge by the DOJ to hospitals, are less invasive. Now sexual assault kit collection protocol allows evidence to be stored at the state crime lab for 10 years.
Under Schimel, the DOJ has apologized to victims failed for decades. He has put together groups of professionals dedicated to producing better outcomes for all.
No previous attorney general tested any of the backlogged kits. Schimel made testing them a priority. His efficiency in negotiating this complicated process is remarkable considering the factors. Please consider this and be careful of what people tell you before you vote in November.
Melissa Petersen, J.D., M.A., is the mother of 10 minor children. She has been a practicing attorney since 2000, and is licensed currently in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. She resides in rural Pierce County.