January 4, 2013
One night in 1985, when Lavinia Masters was 13 years old, she said goodnight and went to sleep in her Dallas home. She awoke suddenly to find a knife at her throat and an intruder sexually assaulting her.
On an ordinary Monday afternoon in 1996, Kristin Yorke was at home in New York City when her roommate returned from work. Unbeknownst to them both, a stranger lurked, forced his way into their apartment and raped both women.
Unfortunately, these women had to wait far too long to get justice. After both crimes, the victims contacted the police, went to the hospital and had DNA evidence collected in a rape kit, a critically important tool that gathers forensic evidence to link a rapist to a crime. Unfortunately for many victims, rape kits often sit on the shelves of evidence rooms across the country - some untested for years, some discarded before ever being tested and some languish for so long that the statute of limitations on the crime of rape has expired. And so was the case for Lavinia and Kristin. While their circumstances were different, their rape kits eventually ended up on a shelf in a storage facility. Victims should not be robbed of justice because of a bureaucratic backlog.
Lavinia’s evidence sat untested for two decades. She took it upon herself to contact the Dallas Police Department when she learned about a program that helped process backlogged rape evidence. While it took some time for her kit to be found and tested, she discovered that her assailant, Kevin Glen Turner, was in jail for other crimes. If he had been caught earlier, perhaps he would not have been out on the street to continue his crime sprees. Sadly for Lavinia, she was denied justice in court because the statute of limitations had run.
Kristin didn’t think justice would ever be served until a proactive Assistant District Attorney decided to have her kit tested in 2005, with newer technology as the statute of limitations was drawing near. Once the evidence was tested, she learned that it matched that of Leroy Johnson, who like Lavinia’s rapist, had been convicted of various other crimes including rape. The discovery of Kristin and her former roommate’s evidence put him behind bars for two consecutive terms of 25 years without parole, ensuring that he cannot harm anyone else ever again.
Lavinia and Kristin’s stories are not isolated. Across the country, rape kits sit on shelves, denying women justice. There are multiple reasons for the backlog – from low prioritization of the evidence to lack of funding and resources. But, regardless of the reasons, this issue has reached epidemic proportions. That’s why we’ve introduced the SAFER Act, a companion bill to legislation introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.). SAFER would allow existing funds to be used to provide grants to states and localities to audit their rape kit backlog as well as require aggregate data to be posted online to help track the progress and results of these audits. SAFER also increases the amount of current funds that can be used directly to test rape kits.
It’s time Congress passed this bipartisan measure that would allow criminal evidence to be accounted for, ultimately helping rape victims to receive the justice that they deserve.
Poe, a Republican from Texas, is the co-founder and co-chairman of the Victims' Rights Caucus and the leade sponsor of the SAFER Act. Maloney is a member of the Victims' Rights Caucus and the lead Democrat sponsor of the SAFER Act.