UPDATE: On Sept. 12, Chief Acevedo announced that he would find funding within the existing fiscal year’s budget to fund the analysis of the current backlogged sexual assault related cases—and any incurred during the closure of APD’s DNA lab—while the lab remains closed.
On Sept. 14, the Austin City Council passed the 2017 budget, which included $1.4 million in the general fund intended to pay for seven additional analysts and one additional supervisor, per PS1.04.
This is a huge win for survivors of sexual assault and for the advocates and citizens who fought to get these funds in the budget. Your advocacy and your support for The SAFE Alliance is a critical part of this victory. You can help us continue to fight for justice for survivors of sexual assault by making a gift today.
The following transcript is from a speech delivered during the Sept. 1 Austin City Council meeting. Like many speakers that afternoon, this Austinite asked council members to adopt budget amendments PS1.04 and PS1.07 to reopen the Austin Police Department’s DNA lab and process the city’s backlog of rape kits.
Following the series of Sept. 1 testimonies, APD has committed to finding funds to clear Austin’s backlog of rape kits and evidence waiting to be tested.
For more information on what led us to this point, read “Closed DNA lab unfunded, rape kits untested, PS1.04 & PS1.07 must pass.”
The speaker wishes to remain anonymous, however, she agreed to allow The SAFE Alliance to publish her words.
My desire to help survivors of assault was born during my service as a witness for the State of California in the successful prosecution of a serial rapist. I have seen firsthand how DNA evidence can take a predator off the streets, and I’d like to share with you the facts of that case.
Back in 2013 in Los Angeles, a man committed a sexual assault. His victim immediately went to a place similar to SAFE’s Eloise House here in Austin. It’s a place where sexual assault forensic exams are completed free of charge, where they can access counseling and advocacy. She reported the crime to police officers that same morning and was interviewed by a detective five days later.
After the interview with law enforcement, the pace of most sexual assault cases slows down. In this case, the detective wanted to wait for DNA evidence to be processed before proceeding. It took eight months for the DNA results to come back. This was in a city where the rape kit backlog had been eliminated entirely in 2011.
“Prosecution rates are low for sexual assault cases, and that’s partly because it is very difficult to build a case around evidence that can meet the burden of beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Fifteen months after the assault was committed, the case had finally worked its way through the District Attorney’s office, and an ADA made the decision to prosecute based on the DNA evidence. Prosecution rates are low for sexual assault cases, and that’s partly because it is very difficult to build a case around evidence that can meet the burden of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This case, though, is an example of what a strong case can look like: The perpetrator said he never touched the victim. The DNA swabs taken during the forensic exam showed that he did. That is a way that DNA builds a strong case.
Often, a plea deal comes at this point. However, the ADA wasn’t willing to offer a deal, and she told me that this was for two reasons: first, it was a strong case. Second, he wanted a deal that would keep him off the sex offender registry. To her, putting him on the registry wasn’t up for negotiation because someone else had reported that he committed the same crime. He was a serial offender.
Twenty-seven months after the assault was committed, the trial began. After five days of testimony, the jury found him guilty in about an hour. Four months later, he was sentenced to a year in jail, five years’ probation, and sex offender registration for life.
It took 31 months in all. That’s two years, seven months. Nearly 1,000 days from the crime to the sentence. And that’s actually fast for a sexual assault case. But it wouldn’t have even moved that quickly without the DNA evidence.
“Right now in Austin, we can’t tell a survivor how long it might take to process their DNA. If PS1.04 and PS1.07 are approved, then in four years the DNA lab will be processing kits in a timely manner. If the amendments are not approved, the delays will continue to get worse.”
So, now that you know the timeline of this case, I want to rewind a bit. Remember that eight months out, DNA results were returned. Right now in Austin, we can’t tell a survivor how long it might take to process their DNA. If PS1.04 and PS1.07 are approved, then in four years the DNA lab will be processing kits in a timely manner. If the amendments are not approved, the delays will continue to get worse.
Not processing kits in a timely manner is bad for many reasons. First, it’s bad because we are failing a survivor. We’re failing to provide them with safety, community response, belief, recourse, and so many other things that could facilitate healing.
But I also want to highlight the other horrific problem with not testing DNA evidence quickly: most rapists don’t just strike once. Remember part of the reason the assistant district attorney in the case I told you about didn’t want to offer a deal? It’s because there was another victim, another report.
Twenty-one years before the sexual assault case I was a witness to occurred, a 14-year-old girl filed a police report against the same man, her neighbor at the time. I only know a few details that the ADA shared with me, but I know that this girl and her mother cooperated with police, but no charges were ever filed because there wasn’t enough evidence. I know that the descriptions of the 1992 and 2013 crimes were nearly identical, and for this reason the ADA tracked the woman down to ask her to testify. When the ADA told me that the woman declined to speak on the record, she described her to me as being “unstable” and “not in a good place”.
It is horrible to report a crime and find out nothing will be done. The psychological effects of that are lasting. But I can’t imagine what it feels like to report a crime and over two decades later find out the perpetrator is still out there committing it despite your effort to stop him.
“Timely and effective use of DNA evidence can lower the number of crime victims in Austin.”
I often feel angry that this predator wasn’t stopped back in 1992. But that is why it was important for me to testify in his trial earlier this year, and that’s why it’s important for me to tell you all this story now. His felony conviction may have taken a long time, but it’s there now, thanks to DNA evidence. He’s been punished, he is in a rehabilitation program, and will hopefully be deterred from committing future crimes.
The main point I want to highlight is this: Timely and effective use of DNA evidence can lower the number of crime victims in Austin.
According to SAFE, APD expects to find that, when tested, half of the backlogged rape kits will contain samples that match a perpetrator who has been linked to another crime since the rape kit was collected. Simply put, if DNA evidence is processed quickly, a rapist can be prosecuted sooner. The sooner a rapist is prosecuted, the fewer people they will victimize.
However, if a prime form of evidence that can connect cases, identify rapists and play an important role in prosecution is ignored, the already low rate at which assaults are prosecuted is going to get even lower. By not testing kits, we’re eliminating the possibility of a trial based on DNA.
I ask you to prioritize protecting this city. APD has sought and secured funding to address the old backlog, and not funding the DNA lab directly contradicts that mission. Public confidence in our city’s response to these crimes should be a priority, as some of the 91 percent of assault victims who do not report a sexual assault cite lack of confidence in the response as the reason for not reporting.
When a survivor comes to SAFE for a forensic exam, they’re doing it because they want to report the crime or have the option to report the crime in the future. It’s a difficult thing to do, and they are trusting the legal system and community to respond. I am here to ask you to please honor that trust. Thanks for your time.