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VOL. 130 | NO. 241 | Friday, December 11, 2015

Memphis Opens DNA Storage Facility for Rape Kits

By Bill Dries

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The Memphis Police Department’s new $1 million property- and evidence-storage facility marks a milestone, according to top city and law enforcement leaders. To them it is an important point in the city’s three-year quest to clear a backlog of more than 12,000 unprocessed sexual assault kits that date back to the late 1970s.

Major Don Crowe with the Memphis Police Department’s sex crimes unit shows off the new mobilized storage system designed to hold sexual assault evidence.

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Outgoing Memphis Mayor A C Wharton didn’t hesitate to defend his approach to handling the scandal, first revealed by Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong in late 2012.

“We resolved immediately that we weren’t going to waste time finger pointing,” Wharton said. “I think you’ve seen that throughout. It was – we’ve got an intolerable situation here. Let’s just go to it. Get it cleaned up. Make some progress and move forward.”

But a Circuit Court lawsuit over the untested rape kits is seeking a detailed chronology of what attorneys for three rape survivors contend was a policy decision by those in the criminal justice system not to test the evidence kits taken from already traumatized victims.

Circuit Court Judge Gina Higgins is overseeing a discovery process in which attorneys for Meaghan Ybos, Madison Graves and Rachel Johnson are seeking any records the city of Memphis has about how the kits were processed and decisions made along the way that resulted in the kits not being tested.

All three filed the lawsuit in 2014 and have chosen to identify themselves publicly.

At a Nov. 23 hearing, they complained the city was not producing the records. Attorneys for the city have questioned whether the plaintiffs were among those with rape kits in the backlog and whether they have standing.

There is a companion Jane Doe federal lawsuit also pending over the backlog.

Police led reporters around the DNA storage room Thursday, Dec. 9, the day before the kits were to be moved onto a set of shelves.

The facility is in Frayser at a location the city asked the media not to disclose. It is in a secure building with combination codes and fingerprint-scanning systems used.

The DNA storage room is climate-controlled with enough space for 50,400 rape kits.

“Hopefully we will never need that capacity,” Wharton said. “The kits stored here are more than just inanimate objects. … I’ll repeat again lest we become numb to the bricks-and-mortar here – these kits represent a traumatized and victimized person. As such they must be handled with the utmost care.”

“We resolved immediately that we weren’t going to waste time finger pointing.”

–A C Wharton
Memphis Mayor

The facility includes four subzero freezers and two workstations as well as a drying room where articles of clothing can be processed.

Wharton acknowledged the city is still working to rebuild confidence that the police and criminal justice system are committed to pursuing complaints of rape and sexual assault.

“It’s going to take a while,” he said. “Everybody’s still working together. Usually when you have a cross-disciplinary team, by this time there has been some falling out. You haven’t heard one bit of dissension or friction. … It’s up to us to keep working, not merely in building facilities but rebuilding the trust and being as transparent as we possibly can.”

When the backlog went public in 2012, Armstrong’s staff found the rape kits stored at several locations, including closets and unused open spaces. It took several months before Armstrong thought his staff had located all of them. And then in 2014, as the team working on the backlog began searching file cabinets for paperwork on the cases, they found still more.

Forty-three percent, or 5,355, of the kits in the backlog have completed all analysis, according to Doug McGowen, head of the city’s sexual assault task force. Another 23 percent, or 2,787, are currently at laboratories being processed, while 4,232 are awaiting additional forensic testing.

Those kits awaiting testing are being shipped at a pace of about 300 a month to certified private laboratories hired by the city.

Wharton, who leaves office at the end of the month, said he would like to see the city have its own laboratory for DNA testing. Finding certified laboratories that meet the standards for processing evidence and maintaining a chain of custody is a problem other cities with rape kit backlogs have faced.

“Nashville has its own, and obviously it won’t be up to me,” Wharton said. “But I certainly would think we should have a lab here because of the population. It could serve for the western region just as our forensic center serves West Tennessee. The same ought to be replicated for DNA testing.”

MORTGAGES 80 320 1,066
BUILDING PERMITS 120 590 2,248