Ga. senator defends move to block rape evidence bill but gets some facts wrong

A state Senator who is taking heat for blocking a popular bill to stop the neglect of sexual assault evidence says that there’s no need to pass statewide legislation to fix a problem that exists only in DeKalb and Fulton counties. But agencies elsewhere in Georgia have reported hundreds of packages of untested evidence, according to published reports.

The Athens-Clarke County Police Department found 159 packages of untested evidence, also known as rape kits, which date back to 1993, according to a local TV news station report last year. Cobb police found 365 that date to the 1970's. There has been no official, statewide count of untested kits, but if these numbers are added to the ones that were held by Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, then the number of untested kits uncovered by the media totals more than 1,900.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, a Buford Republican, took to the Senate floor Tuesday to defend herself against growing criticism of her decision to block HB 827, which passed unanimously in the House with the overwhelming backing of the state's law enforcement community. In recent days, Better Georgia, Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard, and victim advocates on the local, state and national level have raised objections. A petition ago garnered some 400 signatures in support of the bill.

“We would be writing a law . . . because of one particular incident in Fulton County,” Unterman said. “I can assure you if victims are in harm’s way, in January we will have legislation to make the situation improve.”

Atlanta Democrat Rep. Scott Holcomb is sponsor of HB 827, also known as the “Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act.” It would require law enforcement agencies to count and turn in their old, untested kits to state forensic labs this summer and also specifies that they must pick up new evidence within 96 hours from the hospitals and clinics where it is collected. Agencies would have 30 days to take it to state labs.

A draft of the bill was introduced late last session, but interest in the issue picked up steam after an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that Grady Memorial Hospital, the sole rape crisis center for Fulton County's 1 million residents, had locked away some 1,400 of them, even though most belonged to victims who said in writing they wanted them given to police. Grady held them on the mistaken belief that federal privacy regulations blocked their release, but the hospital has since turned over most of its kits, and law enforcement leaders have said that agencies are improving their practices.

During her speech, Unterman criticized a recent AJC story that broke the news that she had declined to hold a required hearing on HB 827 in the Health and Human Services Committee, which she chairs. She emphasized that she chaired a study committee last year that held two meetings and concluded in a January 8 report that it would continue to monitor the rape kit issue in 2016.

In 2015, the study committee was initially described as one that would focus on the problem of campus sexual assault, according to legislation that created the "Senate Ending Campus Sexual Assaults Study Committee,” but the final report called it the Senate Study Committee on Sexual Assault and included recommendations on the handling of rape kits. Unterman noted in her speech that representatives of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Grady Health System, and Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault all testified during her study committee hearings.

“Our conclusion was that the backlog on rape kits was being taken care of. There was not enough need to have additional legislation.” Unterman said.

That said, GBI and GNESA representatives also testified in support of HB 827 before the House Judiciary Non-Civil committee. A Grady spokeswoman told the AJC that the hospital supports the bill.

Watch Unterman's Senate remarks here.

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