Joyful Heart in the News

Guest column: End to rape kit backlog will serve healing

February 17, 2014
The Commercial Appeal
Memphis Mayor AC Wharton and Sarah Tofte

Last week we stood together as Memphis made a public commitment to address and eliminate the city’s backlog of untested sexual assault kits. The partnership between the city of Memphis and the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is donating their service to this effort, will help ensure that the approach taken is survivor-centered and includes input from local advocates every step of the way.

Also, we have the benefit of the experience and expertise of former U.S. attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis to help ensure that our policies and procedures for handling these cases in the future are above reproach.

This commitment to implementing survivor-centric best practices in addressing the backlog and future handling of sexual assault cases will be pursued with the full engagement of the community and stakeholders at all levels of government.

Like all crime victims, survivors of sexual assault deserve to have confidence that law enforcement will pursue justice to the fullest extent. They deserve to know what happened — and what we’re going to do about it.

Since its advent, DNA technology has revolutionized the ability of law enforcement to solve and prevent crime. Over the past few years, as that technology has advanced and improved, there has been a sea change in how the nation thinks about and treats sexual assault cases and kits. There is now a collective recognition that in addition to demonstrating an important commitment to survivors to do everything possible to bring healing and justice, testing rape kits can identify an unknown assailant, confirm the presence of a known suspect, affirm the survivor’s account of the attack, discredit the suspect, connect the suspect to other crime scenes and exonerate innocent suspects.

Memphis has been a part of that paradigm shift and is actively reforming its policies and practices to ensure that every kit booked into police evidence is sent for DNA analysis. Also, the city is investing fully in investigating and turning cases over to the district attorney general for prosecution.

To eliminate the existing backlog, Memphis is adopting a three-part strategy: sending every kit to the laboratory for testing; providing resources and advocacy to re-engage and support survivors during the process; and dedicating the funding and manpower necessary to investigate leads and build cases for prosecution. Testing kits in the backlog is the first step and will take several years and an estimated $5.6 million to complete. The City Council on Tuesday can help keep our momentum moving forward, by approving a request for $1 million to put toward kit testing.

The real work begins when results from testing come back. Following the leads and developing cases for prosecution from all of these kits will take five or six years. Only when every kit is tested, every lead examined, every victim notified and supported, and the last case tried will the backlog truly be ended. This will take our collective will and many resources. Fortunately, our state and federal governments are equally committed to this nationwide problem and they are taking action to make resources available to us to complete this work.

Memphis is not alone in tackling a rape-kit backlog, and crucial to the city’s success moving forward is learning from other localities that are facing this issue, collaborating with all stakeholders and ensuring a survivor-centered approach throughout the process. Together we can learn from what we agree has been a systemic failure of justice and look toward providing a model of reform for the nation.

A C Wharton is mayor of Memphis. Sarah Tofte is vice president of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

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