Other Voices

Texas’ rape kit testing backlog has offenders going unpunished, victims re-victimized

In 2017, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) recorded that 18,750 people were victims of sexual assault.

This statistic suggests a horrific crime has likely impacted you or someone you know.

DNA evidence collected from the victim and crime scene, a “rape kit,” provides crucial evidence for obtaining convictions — and therefore, justice — for the victimized. However, there is a problem: Texas has a rape kit backlog.

The DPS alone has acknowledged a backlog of close to 3,000 sexual assault kits awaiting testing. And this doesn’t count those in the custody of other city or law enforcement agencies.

These untested kits may describe either a kit submitted to a lab but not yet analyzed, or a kit in law enforcement custody but not provided to a lab for analysis. As it stands now, Texas lacks an accurate system to locate, track and process rape kits, resulting in a continuing and unacceptable backlog of untested kits.

The good news: Dallas state Rep. Victoria Neave introduced comprehensive legislation, House Bill 8 to clear the ongoing problem of rape kit backlogs. H.B. 8 establishes a timeline for the examination of future rape kits and a regular audit reporting process, and extends the statute of limitations on sexual assault cases until the rape kit is tested. The bill also provides additional funding for the DPS crime lab.

On April 17, the Texas House unanimously voted to pass H.B. 8. Also, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signaled his support. Now, Texas senators have the opportunity to enact a long-term solution by voting it into law.

Legislators have tried to fix this problem previously. In 2011, when Texas lawmakers first became aware of a backlog of rape kits, they passed legislation requiring an audit. The audit revealed almost 18,000 kits were sitting untested. Then, between 2011 and 2017, legislators passed three laws tailored to rape kit reform. While significantly reducing the backlog, the problem persists.

In 2019, once and for all, Texas needs to close the time gap on rape kit testing for victims of sexual assault.

Lavinia Masters’ case provides an example of why Texas needs H.B. 8 to pass.

In 1985, at the age of 13, Ms. Masters was sexually assaulted by a stranger in her Dallas home. Her rape kit remained untested for over 20 years. By then, the 10-year statute of limitations for her case had expired. Ms. Masters did not receive justice.

In the meantime, before her rapist’s arrest, he sexually assaulted two other women.

H.B.8, also called the “Lavinia Masters Bill,” addresses the rape kit backlog and the expiration of the statute of limitations for untested kits.

The DNA Resource Center of the National Center for Victims of Crime notes, “DNA evidence often plays a key role in successful sexual assault prosecutions. Regardless of the reasons for the backlog, untested rape kits leave crimes unsolved, offenders free, and victims without justice.”

Rape kit testing also enables timely justice for persons wrongly incarcerated for sexual assault, for in such cases the examination of DNA evidence provides proof of innocence.

Though not a victim of sexual assault myself, I minister to incarcerated women victimized by sex trafficking at the Tarrant County Corrections Center. This legislation ensures that sexual assault survivors receive timely attention to their cases. Without it, the backlog will continue.

The time has come to rally the vote to close the gap on rape kit testing. Timely attention to executing justice benefits all people.

Contact your Texas Representatives and ask them to vote yes for H.B. 8.

Cynthia C. Hester is chair of the Association for Women in Ministry Professions (awmp.org).