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VOL. 129 | NO. 13 | Monday, January 20, 2014

Editorial: Rape Kit Backlog Hints at Bigger Issues

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As political shockwaves from the backlog of 12,000 rape kits not tested by Memphis Police over a 30-year period continue to be felt, the backlog is but one of several profound cracks in the foundation our criminal justice system is built upon.

The full impact of this betrayal of trust will continue to surface for quite some time and it will make the already difficult process of pursuing rape cases more difficult. We think any specific solution is part of a larger need within our criminal justice system to review just what it is we expect of that system and what we are getting from that system.

The other elements are a veteran prosecutor who was censured by the Tennessee Supreme Court for withholding exculpatory evidence in a death penalty trial. A new trial was ordered because a Criminal Court Judge believed the defendant's attorney didn't provide an adequate defense.

But that same judge, who was also a veteran prosecutor in the same district attorney general's office before he was a judge, made it clear the prosecutor, who currently supervises other prosecutors in felony cases, made much more than a mistake.

Then there is a murder suspect who confessed after being imprisoned for two months before he was released prompting valid questions about coercion – to put it mildly – leading up to the false confession.

This in a police department that has faced questions before about its stubborn refusal to record such interrogations as most other police departments do. These are dark corners in an environment that has recently seen some promising changes and self-examination. Memphis Shelby County Juvenile Court is changing. The Shelby County Public Defenders Office is part of that change as it makes larger changes in adult criminal justice. Over a longer period of time, the Shelby County Jail has changed dramatically.

It is time to start toward the same comprehensive reforms elsewhere in a machine that for too long has run unchallenged in its methods and what passes for reasoning. It is the kind of reasoning that sealed off 13 city blocks last year from auto and foot traffic because of a protest by 60 bigots on the courthouse steps. Actually the real reason was because police flubbed a similar demonstration by a different Klan group 15 years earlier by going too far the other way.

Meanwhile, police brass have had to put in writing that police officers cannot arrest someone and/or confiscate their cell phone because they record a police encounter. The new policy came after police wouldn’t produce a copy of the old policy. We think broader change begins with a real examination of how so many come into contact with the criminal justice system in Shelby County and whether getting through that system as quickly as possible has come to replace what is supposed to be the result of that system – justice.

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