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VOL. 129 | NO. 77 | Monday, April 21, 2014

Ongoing Rape Kit Backlog Fallout Expands

By Bill Dries

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The ongoing fallout from the backlog of untested rape kits is beginning to develop some boundaries and dividing lines as it moves into federal court and expands outside court to include a backlog of 300 rape kits by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department.

The city of Memphis continues to battle two federal lawsuits over the city’s backlog of 12,000 untested rape kits with a detailed legal defense as Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. complained last week that the lawsuits are affecting his ability to raise money to clear the backlog.

WHARTON

The city’s first formal response last week to the lawsuit filed earlier this month by three victims of Anthony Alliano, the Cordova rapist, seeks dismissal of the lawsuit.

One of the grounds is that the rape kit of Madison Graves was not part of the backlog.

The rape kit, according to the response filed April 14 by attorneys for the city, was taken by Memphis police shortly after the attack on Graves and sent to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation seven days later with DNA that later turned out to be Alliano’s not showing up as a match because Alliano’s DNA was not in any database used by law enforcement.

The response also argues that because the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department investigated the rape of Meaghan Ybos that the city had nothing to do with the delay of nine years in processing her rape kit.

Ybos and Graves were attacked within days of each other in 2003 in Cordova. Ybos lived in the part of the area that is outside the city of Memphis in unincorporated Shelby County. Graves lived in the part of Cordova that is in the city of Memphis.

But the rape kits for them as well as the third plaintiff in the lawsuit, Rachel Johnson, were taken by the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center.

In 2003, MSARC was part of a division of Memphis city government. Johnson was attacked in June 2010 in Memphis.

Her attack came a month before the center became a part of the Shelby County Health Department. The center became part of the health department when then-Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton agreed with the suggestion of Wharton, who was then county mayor, to make it a part of county government instead of city government.

Wharton’s suggestion came at the end of a roiling political controversy over an acute staff shortage and other management issues. The center first had its jurisdiction over child sexual abuse victims transferred to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital and the Child Advocacy Center and then the entire MSARC operations became part of county government.

By the time of the effective date of the transfer in July 2010, Herenton had resigned and Wharton had been elected Memphis mayor.

And a little more than three years later, the larger issue of how city and county agencies investigate rape is again an issue.

Named defendants in the federal lawsuit are MSARC, Shelby County Rape Crisis Center, Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich, her predecessor Bill Gibbons, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong, his predecessor Larry Godwin and “other unknown entities and unnamed individuals.”

ARMSTRONG

The issue again crossed the political border between city and county governments when Sheriff Bill Oldham revealed his office’s backlog of 300 rape kits last week at the opening of budget hearings before the Shelby County Commission.

Oldham’s budget proposal includes $75,000 to test the kits and clear the backlog.

The city’s legal position is similar to its response to the Jane Doe lawsuit filed in December in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee over the same backlog. That lawsuit naming the city government as defendants seeks a requirement that authorities test every rape kit.

The city, through its attorneys, is also seeking to dismiss that lawsuit claiming the rape kit from the 2001 attack was processed by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation that year but no DNA match was found for a suspect until 2012.

The later lawsuit is open on the question of whether testing of every rape kit should be required. Attorney Daniel O. Lofton described the lawsuit’s position as a “compromise” compared to the first lawsuit.

In the first lawsuit, the city’s response was that the city has no duty to test every rape kit.

Meanwhile, city leaders continue to say publicly that testing every rape kit in the backlog and going forward is their goal.

Wharton has said it, and last week Armstrong said it to the Memphis City Council when he was specifically asked by council member Janis Fullilove about testing rape kits in cases that may be beyond the statute of limitations.

“We feel like it’s necessary for us to test all of the kits that we have in our possession in the event that that suspect is responsible for another rape,” Armstrong said, in the latest monthly briefing to the council.

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