Bill that would count neglected rape evidence in trouble in Ga. Senate

A bill that would require police to find and count neglected sexual assault evidence that has the overwhelming support of state law enforcement is in danger because a key state senator has declined to schedule a hearing on the proposal.

House Bill 827 passed the House unanimously last month, but the legislation may die if Health and Human Services Committee Chair Sen. Rene Unterman continues to deny requests for a hearing, according to the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Scott Holcomb, D-Atlanta.

Backers say the legislation would clear up years of confusion about when and how new evidence, stored in packages known as rape kits, should be picked up by police and sent to forensic labs for DNA testing. Members of the Prosecuting Attorneys Council, police chiefs association, two hospital groups and victim advocates have all spoken in support of the bill.

But Unterman said that the problems are in DeKalb and Fulton counties only, and testimony at hearings she held on sexual assault issues before the session showed that law enforcement agencies are cleaning up their acts.

“I don’t see a reason to write a law,” the Buford Republican said.

If the Pursuing Justice for Rape Victims Act succeeds, Georgia would join a small but growing number of states that are passing laws to fix a problem that has dogged law enforcement agencies nationwide, experts said. Supporters worry that if it doesn't, sexual assault cases will continue to go ignored.

"In Georgia today, there are rape kits sitting on shelves, not moving. House Bill 827 fixes that," Holcomb said Thursday. "And it is worth noting that the bill is supported by — and drafted with input from — law enforcement, victims' rights groups, and care providers."

Dalton Republican State Sen. Charlie Bethel, who is carrying the bill in the Senate, hopes that it will continue to receive bipartisan support.

“With all the ways people want to divide Georgia, Georgians are going to be for this — together — and speaking in one voice,” Bethel said. “This is an issue of importance — not just to victims, and not just to criminal justice system, but to an orderly, compassionate human society.”

GBI supporting bill

HB 827 is a revised version of a bill submitted by Holcomb late last session. After an Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation found that Grady Memorial Hospital had locked away some 1,400 untested kits in in file cabinets, even when victims wanted police to take them, the issue gained steam. Administrators for Grady, which conducts the exams as the sole rape crisis center for Fulton County's nearly 1 million residents, later decided to release kits to law enforcement agencies. It now backs Holcomb's legislation.

For some of the older rape kits, evidence went untested because scientists had yet to develop techniques to analyze the kind of DNA evidence the kits contained. For others, investigators failed to pick up the kits from hospitals because they weren’t interested in pursing the cases. Advocates say that many kits were ignored because of a national, decades-long problem where law enforcement wrongfully refused to believe rape victims.

Confusion over what evidence state forensic labs would accept for testing worsened the problem, Georgia Bureau of Investigation officials said. When the agency's DNA testing program began two decades ago, it restricted analysis to cases where investigators had already identified a suspect.

That policy changed years ago, but some local agencies failed to get the message, said GBI Director Vernon Keenan. The proposed legislation would require each department to make a list of their untested kits by Aug. 1 and submit it to the GBI by Aug. 15. Hospitals and clinics with old kits in their possession would be required to contact law enforcement officials, who would have to submit them to GBI labs by Aug. 31.

“I think we will very excited about this project when it’s completed and we’re able to solve cases,” said Keenan, who has joined with state law enforcement groups to back the bill. “Those leads need to be followed. These are sex crimes.”

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said the bill’s sudden change in fortune is a “head scratcher.”

“I have to talked to people around the state and this is something that has cropped up several times in several jurisdictions,” Howard said. “It’s not just a Fulton County problem or a Dekalb County problem.”

There is no reason to wait, said Ann Burdges, head of the Gwinnett Sexual Assault Center and Children’s Advocacy Center. House Bill 827 makes crucial fixes that must take place if a broader, statewide effort to reform the handling of sexual assault cases is to be successful.

“It is a big deal,” Burdges said of the bill. “I stand behind it completely.”

Other states following suit

Under the new legislation, kits used to collect DNA would be picked up by law enforcement within 96 hours and submitted to the state forensic lab within 30 days.

The bill does not allocate money for testing of the old kits, which can cost $500 to $1,000 per kit. But supporters think outside grants from the U.S. Department of Justice and a special program by the New York County District Attorney's Office may cover the cost. Last year, the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council won nearly $2 million of these funds to test an estimated 3,100 kits.

The increase in funding for testing has encouraged other states to pass their own rape kit laws, said Ilse Knecht, director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation, which pushes for rape kits to be tested. Successes by investigators in Detroit and Cleveland with using old kits to identify perpetrators have also built momentum.

In recent weeks, Florida, Oregon, and Virginia passed legislation to address untested kits.

“They are saying, what are we doing here in our state?” Knecht said. “We should be doing this, and we have to do it.”

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