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VOL. 6 | NO. 52 | Saturday, December 21, 2013

Federal Lawsuit Filed Over Rape Kit Backlog

By Bill Dries

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A Memphis woman sexually assaulted in 2001 filed a “Jane Doe” lawsuit in Memphis Federal Court Friday, Dec. 20, against the city of Memphis over the city’s backlog of unprocessed rape kits going back to the 1980s.

The lawsuit, filed by attorney Robert Spence, alleges Memphis Police Department brass knew her rape kit and maybe as many as 15,000 others were not being tested and that the practice was “ratified by multiple policymakers within the city of Memphis Police Department.”

“Defendant has a history of discriminating against females,” the lawsuit continues. “Defendant treats domestic violence abuse reports from women with less priority than other crimes not involving women reporting domestic violence abuse.”

It also claims the city “knew about the herein described conduct and facilitated it, approved it, condoned it and/or turned a blind eye to it.”

The lawsuit alleges the lack of processing of the rape kits violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution and seeks class action status for a group of victims that could number more than 15,000

The lawsuit’s estimate is based on the number of sexual assault and rape victims who made reports to third party agencies during the time covered by the backlog, had rape kits done as part of their cases and who were then turned over to police for further investigation.

Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong told Memphis City Council members Tuesday, Dec. 17, that his department recently found even more rape kits in two other locations, the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center and the University of Tennessee Health Sciences Center.

The backlog, according to Armstrong, stands at more than 12,000 with an initial batch of 1,600 still being processed.

Armstrong told council members this week he will need an additional $396,000 or have to find that amount within his existing division budget just to address further processing of that initial group. So far, three-fourths of the kits that have been processed have shown some kind of results that require additional processing.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said the city is applying for state and federal grants to help pay the cost of processing the backlog. The city was to make a pitch for more state funding for the backlog when Wharton and his administration went before the Shelby County legislative delegation to Nashville at a Friday, Dec. 20, public hearing.

The city is also trying to track down a letter reportedly sent by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that resulted in some of the rape kits being sent to that state agency.

City Chief Administrative Officer George Little estimated processing the entire backlog will take “several years.”

The Memphis Police Department also has plans to build a center with a laboratory specifically for the testing and processing of such rape kits.

The lawsuit seeks a preliminary injunction that would specifically require the city to test sexual assault evidence kits as well as a declaratory order that states not testing the kits is unconstitutional.

The lawsuit also seeks compensatory damages as well as attorney fees and costs.

- Reporter Andy Meek contributed to this story.

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