Annie Kuo: Hello, and welcome to Discovery, a University of Washington podcast where we interview the law school’s distinguished guests and experts from around the world. I'm your host Annie Kuo. On this episode of Discovery, we talk with Washington's Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who serves the people and state of Washington as the 18th attorney general. He was first elected in 2012 and reelected in 2016 and 2020. Prior to serving as attorney general, Ferguson was a member of the King County Council. As the state's chief legal officer, he directs 500 attorneys and 600 professional staff. Welcome, Bob.
Bob Ferguson: Thanks so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
AK: So, in 2021 you were our virtual commencement speaker at UW Law, and I understand you also participated in a day-long symposium here a few years ago with the late Senator Slade Gorton, thank you for your involvement with our school.
BF: I enjoy being involved with the UW and Slade Gordon, of course, was a previous attorney general in the state of Washington. So, I had a close relationship with him as well.
AK: I understand that you came to the UW as an undergrad and you are a devoted Husky fan, but you went to NYU Law School, you were not actually accepted at UW Law, but you've kept the rejection letter.
BF: Yeah, I think I read from my rejection letter when I gave the commencement speech. So, I came a long way from being a UW law school reject and speaking at commencement. So, it turned out okay, in the end, I think,
AK: So, please explain how you provide legal representation across the state and serve the people directly. I understand your office prosecutes certain kinds of cases in all but one county in Washington.
BF: Yeah, so the AG’s office in a nutshell, the highly abridged version is, as you said, at the beginning we're the largest law firm in the state of Washington, we have 13 offices across the state of Washington and think of our work may be in two buckets, right? The biggest bucket in terms of the most people in the office, and we have more than 600 attorneys, and more than 600 professional staff—it's a big operation—but the biggest bucket, of course, is the work we do on behalf of the state being the law firm, so to speak, for the state. And by the state that might intuitively be to some of your listeners, hey, the legislature or the governor. But of course, it also includes every state board commission, and agency of which there are hundreds. And so some are big, and complex, like Department of Corrections. Some are so small, you've never heard of them. But we're the law firm for those agencies and those clients.
The other part of our work, which is typically what is more in the public eye, and probably what we're talking about later on today, is work we do directly on behalf of the people. We call that our affirmative litigation. So, think areas like civil rights enforcement, consumer protection, antitrust, criminal justice. If we have litigation against the federal government, for example, all those types of cases are decisions I make, essentially, on behalf of the people. I don't call up an agency or the governor to ask permission to file a lawsuit in the civil rights area or consumer protection. Those are my decisions. And one example of that work, as you mentioned, is we handle cases involving sexually violent predators in every county except for King County. Again, those are cases on behalf of the people of the state of Washington in that context, which of course those are very important and challenging cases.
AK: Thank you so much for all the work that you and your office do on behalf of Washingtonians. Today we're going to discuss two matters that your office has been working on—genetic genealogy and its relation to the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. This is a new initiative that your office has received a grant from the Department of Justice to process and help throughout the state of Washington.
So, let's get into genetic genealogy. This summer, your office announced that the DNA forensic genetic genealogy program has helped solve three cold cases including one with multiple victims, but has been involved in a total of 23 cases overall. Before your office got involved, those three cases did not have active leads and our fingers are crossed that leads generated by the program may result in future arrests and convictions in the other 20 cases to which the genetic genealogy has been applied.
First question, what is the criteria that determines who in the state, or which cases, are eligible to receive funding and resources?
BF: Yeah, you bet. This is an important initiative. So, I appreciate you asking about it. So, this program regarding genetic genealogy, the program requires certain criteria before we can pass on these grant funds. And so in a nutshell, it has to be a sexually motivated offense. It has to be a violent felony. It has to be a cold case. And in fact, the cases we're talking about are literally decades old. And all leads in these cases must be exhausted. And so if it meets that criteria, then we can provide these grant funds. And those criteria are set by the Department of Justice, not by my office.
AK: Bob, could you define genetic genealogy for our listeners?
BF: By genetic genealogy, what we're talking about is, there's things like 23andme, or Ancestry DNA where people try to get information about their genealogy. And so what we're not talking about here, Annie, is if you go to Ancestry DNA, and you take a home test, and look at the results and don't do anything else, you're not affected by this. But what many people do is when they get those results, they post them publicly. So, the idea is, when multiple people post their DNA, you can cross check and find other relatives that you may have that you weren't aware of, by cross checking DNA with many, many others who do the same thing. And so what we're talking about here with genetic genealogy is law enforcement hiring specialists who can take DNA from a crime that's decades old, and taking that DNA can compare it with existing DNA at these genetic sites that have been made public by individuals and have signed waivers to make that public. And by looking at that DNA, that's out there, publicly, they can literally construct a family tree where they can identify individuals or family members who are very close to who the perpetrator was and help find these individuals and solve these cold cases.
AK: Tell us about one of the three cold cases that the genetic genealogy program has helped to solve.
BF: Yeah, so each of these cases, as you might imagine, they're tragic and troubling in the extreme, but one of these cases—it’s very gratifying to help solve them. And so one case might be a useful example. So, in June of 2020, Chief Darren Wallace, who was in Grays Harbor County, came to my office seeking funding through this grant that we're talking about on forensic genetic genealogy. And he was trying to solve a 20-year old cold case back from 2003, in which a 17 year old girl from McCleary was abducted near her home by an unknown man. He took her to another location, he raped her, and then drove her back. She freed herself and got home and reported that to her family, but there were no matches with DNA. And the case went cold until chief Wallace reached out to our office. And so we funded testing through the grant that we have. And they did this research comparing DNA from the crime scene to public DNA databases from these family tree DNAs and others that are out there. And they actually identified a relative of the suspect, and eventually provided Grays Harbor investigators with the names of three brothers who could be the suspect. And one of them a guy named Paul Bieker, lived in McCleary at the time of the crime. And so from there, law enforcement do what they do best, right? They did the investigation. And in this case, they were able to gather further evidence to confirm a DNA match. And this individual Paul Bieker was ultimately convicted and sentenced just recently to 30 years in prison. So, you know, it's very gratifying for our team to be able to work with local law enforcement officials, and obviously, for the victims and the loved ones of the victims to solve a case that literally has been cold for nearly two decades.
AK: Wow. When we heard about the work that your office has done, and hearing you speak about it—and bringing to justice, a case that had been cold for 20 years—it really brings to light you know, all the true crime that we see on TV and how new technology and coordination can really make a difference in bringing justice to bear.
So, the genetic genealogy program is part of the Sexual Assault Kit Initiative. Let's talk about that next. The attorney general's office took the initiative to coordinate the statewide multidisciplinary response to an accumulation of unsubmitted sexual assault kits by local law enforcement agencies and hospitals. Could you tell us about the context behind the problem?
BF: Yeah, and so what we're talking about here are sexual assault kits. And what this means for your listeners is, if, for example, a woman is sexually assaulted, in order to obtain evidence from the assault, she has to go through an extremely invasive process where, just to be direct about it, evidence must be collected from her body. And that is very invasive, and often traumatic, as you might imagine, for that individual.
So, the evidence that is compiled through that process, they compile what's called a sexual assault kit, right, that they actually have now some DNA. So, what became clear to me a few years ago was there were potentially thousands of these sexual assault kits in which there was potential evidence to solve a crime, but the DNA from the sexual assault kit was literally never tested. So, by never being tested, it’s never run through these national databases that are available to help locate the perpetrator. And it may seem incredible and hard to believe that this was going on in Washington state, but actually Washington state is not alone that this has been a national news story. Other states have had similar issues where these sexual assault kits literally have sat on the shelves of law enforcement agencies all across the state for years and years and years and were literally never tested.
And so when this came to my attention some years ago, I just felt very strongly that you know, the AG office is not involved in this, we don't collect the evidence, we don't store it, we don't have a formal role in this process. It just seemed to me that we need to get involved to help address this backlog of all these kits that have not been tested, figure out how many there were and get them tested. So, we can solve crimes and bring resolution for victims and get bad actors off the streets.
AK: I'm curious why they weren't tested? Was it a staffing shortage or just accumulation of inventory? And not enough people to handle them? Why did these go after putting the women through—well, the victims—through the process, the traumatic process of collection? What was the reason that across the state these hadn't been processed?
BF: Yeah, I suspect there's no answer I can give that be satisfactory for folks who have not have their kits tested. And really, you know, it's local law enforcement who really can answer it. Well, we have heard from local law enforcement, are situations like the following: hey, maybe there was a situation where the victim chose not to press charges. So, they chose not to get it tested with the finite resources that local jurisdictions have, or there's capacity issues of funding issues. You name it, right? That there's a variety of reasons given. I guess what I would say, Annie, is that I don't find any of those persuasive. You know, maybe you could excuse some small subset of thousands of these kits not being tested for some reason, right? But, Annie, those need needed to be tested. And that got us involved in this process, working by the way with, you know, victims who became advocates for having these kits tested and others who care deeply about this issue as well. But I just felt, hey, the role of the AG, maybe we could be helpful holding a statewide office where we work with law enforcement advocates, maybe we could be helpful in trying to address this issue.
AK: I'm curious of those that have been processed, do you filter out the ones where people didn't want to press charges?
BF: Yeah, so, no, in this situation, all the kits are tested, right? That is useful information to put into our DNA database, right? And keep in mind, some of these are years and years old where this has happened. And so what we did was we received a grant from the Department of Justice. And, you know, these are evidence from, you know, at the time this happened, an individual saying she was assaulted, right? This is evidence from an alleged assault. And so we received a grant from the Department of Justice for $3 million. And so with that grant, what we did was we did an inventory of how many untested sexual assault kits that were in the state, and the answer was thousands of them. And from there, then, we started the process to get them tested. And we've made significant progress over the years—again, working with legislators and others as well. We've essentially, nearly, addressed the entire backlog, and are getting close to being up to date with all these untested kits.
And now they're helping to solve crimes. By putting those into databases or running them against databases where we have DNA of felons who are incarcerated or have been incarcerated, we're now getting matches. Local law enforcement is getting matches and helping to solve crimes, and other cold cases that exists in our state. So, we're starting to see the results by getting these tested, running them through our databases and now solving crimes.
AK: Congratulations. I just noticed some numbers on the website for the Sexual Assault Kit initiative, which by the way, everyone is WA is Washington, S-A-K-I dot A-T-G, attorney general, dot W-A dot G-O-V—wasaki.atg.wa.gov—that 6,778 kits have been tested in total. And there's been a total of 1,635 CODIS matches. CODIS stands for Combined DNA Indexing System.
BF: Exactly. So that's information that local law enforcement use to try and help solve crimes. And I guess just what I would say is that, you know, from my standpoint, the way I think about that is, you know, how would I feel if my daughter, my wife, a loved one in my family had gone through a traumatic experience like this, had gone through this process of having a sexual assault kit put together and then nobody had bothered to test it? You know, I don't have words for how I would feel about that, right? And so, the fact that there are thousands of these individuals who did not have them tested and they have loved ones in their life, I just felt it was the responsibility of the state and local law enforcement to get this done for many, many reasons, but it became personal to me in that way. And that's how I thought about it and just thankful to work with so many folks and advocates and others to make this happen.
AK: Can you tell us how else your office is working to support sexual assault victims and hold offenders accountable?
BF: Yeah, so you know, another area—and, you know, we could have another conversation about this as well—but throughout this process of getting these kits tested, I became more deeply involved in this issue in general. And one thing I learned through that process from my team is in Washington State, we have a law, I'm going to oversimplify a little bit, but basically, if you are convicted of a certain felony—for example, serious felonies, or very serious misdemeanors—if you're convicted, you are legally required to provide a DNA sample, okay, as part of your sentence. And these offenders must provide that, and those DNA samples can be uploaded into this national database, right?
Well, one thing we learned is that the process to collect that DNA in Washington State, because you've got multiple law enforcement, jurisdictions and agencies across the state, that process is put a kindly is inconsistent. And numerous DNA profiles have never been collected. Again, this has been going on for many, many years. We're talking about very serious offenders—sexual offenders, violent offenders—and their DNA was never collected, even though it's legally required to collect it. And so we began a process of trying to address that. This is time consuming, to put it mildly. I'll sort of spare you the details of it. But so far, we have collected nearly 400 samples from sex offenders across our state. And we've now moved on to work with other very, very serious offenders, murderers, attempted murders, that type of thing to get their DNA collected in the system, once again, so law enforcement when they run DNA on a unsolved crime, they can potentially get a match and help solve that crime.
AK: If this isn't too much in the weeds, could you tell us about that SAK Inventory project managed by your office and how the CODIS system was used with regards to the Sexual Assault Kit processing?
BF: Yeah, essentially taking care of a complex issue, but basically when we received this grant from the Department of Justice, for I believe it was $3 million initially, we've gotten an additional million since then, but the first requirement, if I recall correctly, from the Department of Justice, for utilizing the grant was to conduct an inventory of how many untested sexual assault kits there were sitting on shelves in Washington State. And again, we're talking about a couple hundred law enforcement agencies in the state. So, we spent many months writing to local law enforcement agencies, calling them and asking them to take an inventory of any untested kits that they had. So, that process literally took months, but we completed it. And that's where we finally realize the volume, the many thousands of untested kits.
Once a kit is tested, it can be uploaded to a database, where then if you're a local law enforcement official, you’ve got DNA from a crime scene, what they can do is run that DNA through CODIS, through a database and look for a match. Once they've got a match, that's not the end of the story. Of course, they've got much investigation to do at that point. But it is a lead for them in trying to solve a crime or a cold case that they have. And that's why getting this DNA from these sexual assault kits tested and in the system is so important. Same with these violent felons who have been legally required to provide their DNA to the state of Washington and never did it. It was never collected. It's important to get that DNA and put in the system. So local law enforcement, and investigators can get matches and solve cases.
AK: And testing these kits will identify those serial rapists and provide answers to families and the survivors.
BF: Absolutely. I mean, it is shocking that those sexual assault kits were never tested. It is shocking to me that the DNA from convicted felons of the most serious offenses, who are legally required to provide their DNA, that it’s never been collected. And we're not talking about six months ago, Annie, right? In many of these cases, it’s been years and years and years that this DNA was never collected. And so one of the challenges for my team actually is going through and identifying who the individuals were who required by that DNA. Are they even still alive? Do they live in the state of Washington? Can we locate them after all these years? So, there's huge challenges in even simply identifying these individuals and seeing if we can find an address where they live, to get them to collect the DNA after all these years.
AK: Thanks for providing the information on how that $3 million grant from the Department of Justice, what it provides for and the additional one million that's been received. Can you tell us how you can ensure that untested sexual assault kits don't accumulate without a plan in the future?
BF: I think there's better news on that front than on the back that accumulate over many years. So, looking forward, you know, thankfully there are legislators like Tina Orwall who has been a real leader who has done a lot of work to get additional funding to address this issue moving forward. And that includes, for example, building a brand new, state of the art state patrol lab to increase the capacity to test these kits. One of the challenges that existed was it just was very time consuming to get these kits tested. And there were not enough resources, individuals, with the expertise to conduct these tests. Now, we actually have our own lab here in the state of Washington. So, the capacity is much greater than it was before. And they have passed laws now mandating timely testing. So, I think it's fair to say, Annie, that we've gone from a couple of years ago where very few people are even aware of this issue or working on it to now having a real system in place, thanks to folks like Tina Orwall and other legislators who put the funding there to create a system where we will hopefully avoid having that backlog again in the future.
AK: Thank you so much for all the work that you're doing, you and your office in terms of identifying these issues that hadn't been picked up and then getting the funding, creating a plan, developing a plan to get answers for people and bring justice.
BF: And thanks so much, Annie, I appreciate that. And on behalf of my team—they're the ones who really do all the work—but I know I can say speaking on behalf of my team that we just really view it as an honor to do that work, and to do what we can to help victims and their loved ones across the state under really dramatic circumstances. It's an honor to do the work and it's great to be on your show. Thanks so much.
AK: Thank you. Attorney General Bob Ferguson is Washington State's chief legal officer. He is the 18th Attorney General serving the state of Washington.