Plough Foundation Makes Challenge Grant on Rape Kit Backlog

By Bill Dries


MSNBC's Ronan Farrow interviews Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

The Plough Foundation has made a $750,000 challenge grant toward the estimated $6 million in funding the city of Memphis says it needs to clear the city backlog of more than 12,000 untested rape kits.

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. announced the funding from the philanthropic group Thursday, May 29, on MSNBC’s “Ronan Farrow Show.” The grant brings public and private funding for the effort to $2.75 million in a process Wharton has estimated will take five years.

“We are well on our way,” Wharton said. “We are going to get it done.”

Farrow pressed Wharton on how the backlog came to be over nearly 30 years. The city is a defendant in two federal lawsuits filed by rape survivors alleging Memphis police didn’t make rape investigations a priority.

The lawsuits also allege police collected forensic evidence from rape victims knowing the rape kits would not be processed and that officials contended there was no backlog when they knew there was.

“Every day we waste pointing fingers or digging up bones, there’s a victim who’s waiting. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

–A C Wharton Jr.
Memphis Mmyor

“Heretofore, rape cases – sexual offense cases – there was always this doubt: ‘Why exhaust all these resources? She may not show up tomorrow. It’s boyfriend-girlfriend,’” Wharton told Farrow. “It’s just a little bit of sexism. … Sexism refers to institutional sexism, not individual sexism.”

A report on the cause of the backlog, which Wharton commissioned former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis to investigate earlier this year, is nearing completion, according to an update Memphis City Council members got May 20 from Memphis police brass.

And council members could hear more about the report as early as June 2 council committee sessions.

“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 part of this development, if you will,” Coleman-Davis said in April on the WKNO-TV program “Behind The Headlines.” “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.”

Wharton has said he will take action if the report finds violations of policy or law in the backlog.

“What we’re saying is, ‘Let’s deal with the victims first. You’ll have plenty of time to point fingers and who did it and who done it,’” Wharton said Thursday. “Every day we waste pointing fingers or digging up bones, there’s a victim who’s waiting. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

The city has also been working with the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national nonprofit that has worked with other cities to eliminate rape kit backlogs.

Meanwhile, an amendment by U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen to divert $5 million in funding from the Drug Enforcement Administration to a $36 million federal pool of grant money for rape kit testing nationwide was approved in the House Thursday in a voice vote.

Cohen’s amendment would bring the total amount available for grants to $41 million. And Cohen’s strategy is that the extra funding makes it more likely the city will get a share of the federal funding.

“We know that these untested rape kits could have caught perpetrators and prevented additional attacks and more victims,” Cohen said. “And we must do everything in our power to eliminate a rape kit backlog that is worse in Memphis than anywhere else in the country.”