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VOL. 129 | NO. 83 | Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Rape Kit Backlog Report Tracks Complex Path

By Bill Dries

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The former federal prosecutor investigating the city’s untested rape kit backlog says clearing the backlog will mean more than an investment in testing the rape kits for DNA.

“Stop and think. These kits are going to be tested,” said former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.”

“Let’s say out of the 2,000 there are 1,000 that are prosecutable,” she said of the current number of rape kits that have already undergone testing. “Think about what the prosecutor’s office is going to have to do in terms of resources.”

Allison Glass of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center attends a rally earlier this year that was focused on the backlog of rape kits in Memphis. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

The program, hosted by Eric Barnes, publisher of The Daily News, can be seen on The Daily News Video Page, video.memphisdailynews.com.

Coleman-Davis said her report to Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. should be completed in approximately two weeks. She has interviewed more than 25 people including Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong and Shelby County Sheriff Bill Oldham, who disclosed this month his own office’s backlog of 300 rape kits.

Her charge in the examination is to define how the backlog came to be, “and part of how we got to this point obviously is to avoid getting to this point ever again,” she added.

“If you go back to the early ’80s and you look at all of these entities … you have so many hands on, or people who were a part of, this development, if you will,” Coleman-Davis said. “Fixing it is a real challenge. I can honestly say that Director Armstrong started somewhere back in late 2010, early 2011 recognizing that this was a problem.”

And since he disclosed the backlog of 12,000 late last year, Coleman-Davis said there have been changes with training for law enforcement officers investigating rapes.

“One of the changes that came out of this … was the police department was told that when you start calling on victims in these cases, you need to have an advocate. Police do what they do. They ask questions, get information very pro forma – but have an advocate with them, helping them and helping the victim understand,” she said. “A victim-centered approach – I guess that’s what the police department and law enforcement had to learn that they have to not just look at it as a case that has to be solved and taken for prosecution. But that they really do have to involve the victim and do it from a victim’s perspective.”

She also pointed to attitudes in American society in general toward rape that impact how cases are prosecuted.

“Rape is a really difficult issue for people to sort of grasp. I think their mindset sometime is they think the woman has done something to put herself in this position,” Coleman-Davis said. “So, they become very difficult cases to try before a jury and you’re not going to be guaranteed success. There are a host of what I would consider to be interrelated systemic issues that cause not just Memphis but other cities nationwide a reluctance or a slowness, if you will, to go ahead and do the testing and push the cases for prosecution.”

Part of chronicling the backlog has involved untangling the many stops the evidence makes with agencies from different governments along the way.

Wharton has said that if the report indicates he should take some kind of disciplinary action he will consider it in his response to the report to come.

Coleman-Davis said everyone she has interviewed has been forthcoming in their responses.

The public response from police brass, the Sheriff’s office and the city in general has been muted with the filing of two civil lawsuits in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Tennessee by rape victims over the backlog.

Wharton and Armstrong have said their goal is for every rape kit in the backlog and going forward to be processed with DNA-identifying information registered in a national database whether a case can be prosecuted or not.

However, attorneys for the city in one of the two civil cases have argued in their first response that the city does not and should not have a legal obligation to test every rape kit.

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