A former judge will lead an initiative to clear the backlog of untested rape kits, some of which have been untouched for years, Attorney General Eric Schmitt said Wednesday at a Columbia news conference.

During the Wednesday appearance at the offices of True North, a Columbia program assisting victims of domestic abuse, Schmitt said the first job for M. Keithley Williams, administrator of the St. Louis Circuit Court's drug court program and a former associate circuit judge, will be to create an inventory and tracking system for untested kits.

There are more than 5,400 untested kits, evidence collected during a forensic examination of victims who report sexual assault, according to a 2018 audit. During the event, Schmitt said it takes incredible courage for victims to come forward and testing the evidence is crucial to ensuring justice is served.

“Tragically, we now know that in our state there are currently thousands of untested sexual assault kits just waiting to be logged,” Schmitt said. “These kits are not numbers. They are not footnotes to the reporting of a crime. They represent real human beings who have suffered and confronted their fears, reporting a sexual assault and submitting a kit.”

The tracking system is an important step in clearing the backlog, Williams said.

“Before improvements can be made in the criminal justice system, first you have to acknowledge there is a better way of doing business,” Williams said. “Missouri now joins many states who have decided that untested sexual assault kits in evidence lockers or storage rooms in hospitals simply is not the best practice.”

The initiative was applauded by Lee Russell, president of the board of directors of True North, who said the state’s efforts will help counselors and staff working with sexual assault victims.

“True North of Columbia is pleased this initiative for the state of Missouri has been granted and we thank you so very much,” Russell said. “We believe that together we can tell our sexual assault victims that we believe you, we will protect you and bring you perpetrators to be held accountable.”

Jennifer Carter Dochler, Public Policy Director at the Missouri Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence, also praised the states efforts, saying such an effort was “a long time coming.”

“We are very excited we are able to move forward to not only hold perpetrators accountable but also make victims feel like justice has been served,” Carter Dochler. “We are very excited and want to get to work.”

Schmitt, when asked how the kits were allowed to go unchecked for so long, said he hopes the initiative will uncover some of the reasons. When asked if the state was seeing a backlog on evidence in other criminal cases such as drug crimes, Schmitt gave no specifics and shifted the focus rape kits.

“We certainly want to be helpful to the extent we are aware of any other evidence backlog, but our focus today is clearly on the sexual assault kits,” Schmitt said. “There has been attention on it and rightfully so.”

State lawmakers in May 2018 passed a bill that included language establishing procedures for handling the kits, requiring law enforcement keep them for at least 30 years and development of the tracking system. In October 2018, then attorney general Josh Hawley announced a $2.8 million U.S. Department of Justice grant to help clear the state’s backlog through the initiative announced Wednesday.

Legislation currently pending in the Missouri House of representatives would extend the time the kits are kept to the applicable statute of limitations and require victims receive notification prior to destruction.