Cornyn pushes bill to fund rape kit testing

FORT WORTH -- Lavinia Masters was 13 when a man broke into her Dallas home and raped her at knifepoint.

"I had no idea who he was, where he came from, why he chose me," Masters said Monday. "I lived a terrible life as a child [because] the rapist told me that if he saw the police come to my home, he would kill me and my family.

"I [lived] in fear of the unknown."

But Masters still hoped police would catch the man who ruined her childhood, because she had let doctors take DNA samples from her after the assault.

She didn't know that the rape kit that could have pinpointed her attacker was tucked away in a police evidence room, collecting dust.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said that he doesn't want any more women to wait -- as Masters did -- for their attackers to be brought to justice.

He is co-sponsoring the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry (SAFER) Act, which is geared to prompt more testing of evidence and help eliminate a backlog of approximately 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide.

The bill is expected to be considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday, Cornyn said during a news conference Monday at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. The school's Center for Human Identification is assisting Fort Worth police and other Texas law enforcement agencies in reducing their rape kit backlogs.

He said the SAFER bill will identify a true total of logjammed rape kit cases -- those that have been sent to labs and those still remaining in evidence lockers. The bill goes beyond the Debbie Smith Act of 2004, which expanded the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) and created grants for states to help them cut down on their testing backlogs, he said.

The SAFER Act boosts the amount spent on rape kit tests from 40 to 75 percent and would create a national sexual assault forensic evidence registry. "We will find out how big this problem is," Cornyn said. "This is something I think all of us can support."

He said he hopes the bill will be approved before the end of the year.

More help

Each rape kit -- a box that contain swabs, envelopes and paperwork -- generally details evidence collected at a hospital from a rape victim. It can costs around $1,000 to process and analyze, officials say.

In Fort Worth, 960 kits in recent years were submitted to the Center for Human Identification for processing.

From those kits, 102 suspects were identified, leading to 47 arrests and 36 felony convictions, Fort Worth Police Chief Jeff Halstead told Cornyn and other officials.

State lawmakers have also tried to address the problem of untested rape kits in Texas.

Last year, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, spearheaded efforts to pass a bill requiring law enforcers to more quickly test newly collected rape kits and pursue testing the backlog of old rape kits in a more timely manner as long as funds are available.

"The work you are doing at the federal level ... is so, so important," she told Cornyn on Monday. "The federal dollars are so needed."

Reopened case

Masters said help can't arrive quickly enough.

Her case was reopened by the Dallas Police Department 20 years after her assault.

Police sent off her unprocessed rape kit and learned that her attacker had been in prison for other sexual assaults and was released, only to attack again and sexually assault an elderly woman.

"It's disturbing that we have these monsters allowed to walk the streets and no one knows what they are capable of," said Masters, now a victims advocate and a outspoken supporter of Cornyn's bill. "This has got to stop."

Anna M. Tinsley, 817-390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley