Republican Sen. Renee S. Unterman (left) confers with House Speaker Pro-Tempore Jan Jones late in the night Thursday, March 24 — the 40th and final day of the Georgia 2016 legislative session.  Rape kit legislation that was passed in the House but blocked by Unterman went on to clear its final hurdle.  BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM
Photo: Bob Andres
Photo: Bob Andres

Amid cheers, rape kit bill clears final hurdle in Georgia

A flurry of last-ditch efforts succeeded Thursday in saving a stalled bill that would require Georgia law enforcement to find and count untested sexual assault evidence.

House Bill 827 was blocked in the state Senate by state Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, but vocal support from women’s advocates, victims groups and others cleared the way for the House to revive the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act as Senate Bill 304.

The bill cleared its final hurdle just after midnight with a unanimous House vote. The chamber broke into cheers, and members from both sides of the aisle gave a rare standing ovation to the bill’s sponsor, state Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat.

The passage of SB 304 was a race against time. An earlier version had passed the House unanimously in February, but the revived bill had to pass both chambers on the session’s final day before heading to Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk.

It passed the House Thursday morning without opposition. During the debate, Holcolmb thanked victim rights advocates and sexual assault survivors for keeping the bill afloat.

“I’m inspired by their strength, courage and resilience,” Holcomb said. “You never quit, and this House hasn’t quit either.”

But the bill did not pass the Senate until the session’s final minutes — after legislators added language to protect crime victim rights and made other tweaks. Unterman defended herself from critics as she introduced the changes.

“Since the day I stepped in this chamber in 2002, I’ve done nothing but take care of victims,” said Unterman, who relented and voted for its passage. The amendments forced the bill back to the House for its final successful vote.

Unterman’s initial opposition to the popular bill surprised observers and made her a punch line on late-night television. But the Buford Republican dug in as the pressure mounted, declining to give it a required hearing in the House and Human Services Committee, which she heads as chairwoman.

Unterman said there was no need for a statewide bill to solve a Fulton and DeKalb county problem. Yet untested evidence has been found in other jurisdictions — including at the police department for Unterman’s home county, Gwinnett. One rough estimate made by state criminal justice experts suggested that some 1,400 kits may have gone untested in 2014 alone.

Unterman also complained that Holcomb did not attend study committee meetings she led before the session on campus sexual assault and related issues, and she said she will address rape kit legislation next year if necessary.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found last year that more than 1,400 kits were locked away untested at Grady Memorial Hospital, even though victims wanted them transferred to law enforcement. Police had failed to pick them up, and the hospital was keeping them on the mistaken belief that federal privacy regulations barred their release.

Grady, statewide hospital associations and law enforcement groups all backed Holcomb’s bill.

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