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VOL. 129 | NO. 89 | Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Norris Defends Rape Kit Backlog Approach

By Bill Dries

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State Senate Republican leader Mark Norris of Collierville says the Tennessee Legislature wants to know the size of the statewide problem of untested rape kits, an explanation of why it happened and a credible plan for eliminating it before coming up with funding to deal with the problem.


“We took a multidisciplinary approach to it with a statewide inventory, which we’ll coordinate,” Norris said. “By July 1, everything is supposed to be in and then the (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation) will send a report to the General Assembly. So we will know what we are looking at statewide when we get back in January.”

Between now and then, the state has repurposed $500,000 in U.S. Justice Department funding specifically for the city of Memphis to continue testing its backlog of 12,000 rape kits. The City Council has approved another $1 million in funding toward the testing.

Norris is reacting to criticism following the Legislature’s decision toward the end of this year’s session to vote down a proposal for $2 million to be used statewide.

“I’m in uncharted territory. I’m not a crusader. I’m trying to do a good public policy thing here,” he said. “To file an amendment that morning that makes it look like you are providing funding for something that you’re not – it was good political theater, but it was really a cheap shot.”

Meanwhile, the $35 million in federal funding for which the city and other local and state agencies across the country can apply also requires an inventory of the backlogs the funding would be used to clear.

Norris wants assurances that the state and federal funding is used to deal with the backlog and address its causes. He is also awaiting a report on the causes of the backlog from former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman Davis ordered by Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr.

Norris said the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation can’t clear the backlog alone. The Memphis Police Department is using the TBI lab and a private certified laboratory.

“My impression is … in any event, it will require third-party assistance,” he said. “You can’t just snap your fingers and do it. It’s technical stuff. It would take longer to train the people to do it. We don’t have these technicians readily available, or so the TBI tells me. It would take many months of training, first of all. The better part of valor is to use third-party laboratories who can do this work.”

As the tested rape kits produce evidence, those cases then move to the district attorney general’s office for review and possible prosecution. That raises questions about the backlog moving from the labs to the prosecutor’s office.

But Norris said the bill he co-sponsored that lifts the statute of limitations on cases going forward as well as those in the last three years should ease that. That bill passed in both chambers of the Legislature.

“If you know who the alleged perpetrator is, you can take whatever precautions need to be taken to make sure the perp is not out there and still committing these crimes,” he said. “The time to prosecution is still more manageable because the statute of limitations has been repealed.”

Shelby County District Attorney General Amy Weirich testified before Norris’ committee earlier this year in support of repealing the statute of limitations in those cases.

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