State Sen. Rene Unterman doubled down Wednesday on her opposition to a bill that would require untested DNA evidence in sexual assault cases to be sent to state forensic labs, even as Georgia House Speaker David Ralston ratcheted up pressure by weighing in to support the stalled bill.
House Bill 827 passed unanimously in the House, but Unterman, who is also a Republican, has declined to give it a required hearing in the Health and Human Services Committee, saying statewide legislation is unnecessary to correct what she sees as a local problem. Ralson said that he was concerned that the bill could become a casualty of personal agendas.
“I would hope that the Senate would go back and revisit that position because I think … that’s good public policy, and I think that ought to trump our individual agendas,” Ralston, who represents Blue Ridge, told News 95.5 and AM 750 WSB.
Unterman replied that bill sponsor Rep. Scott Holcomb, an Atlanta Democrat, did not pay attention to work she did on the issue during study committee hearings that she chaired before the legislative session.
“It’s nothing personal,” said Unterman, who is from Buford. “I’m just taking the Senate’s stance that we had the study committee, and that was the recommendation and that was our agreement with the three hospital associations, with the (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) and with the Board of Regents.”
HB 827 would require law enforcement agencies to find and turn in their old, untested kits to state forensic labs this summer. New evidence must be picked up within 96 hours from the hospitals and clinics where it is collected. Agencies would have 30 days to take it to state labs.
Unterman’s opposition has sexual assault victims and their supporters up in arms. More than a dozen joined Holcomb Wednesday for a press conference in which he rebutted Unterman’s claims that only Fulton and DeKalb counties have problems with untested kits. As many as 1,400 packages of evidence may not have been submitted to forensic labs in 2014 alone, he said.
“What’s very important in this discussion is that we focus on the facts,” said Holcomb. “And facts are these: This issue is not limited to just one city, not limited to just one hospital, and not limited to just one agency. What we know across the state is that there is no single protocol requiring the timely processing of rape kits.”
Holcomb’s figure for untested kits comes from an application for federal funding by the state Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which used GBI figures to come up with the estimate. It also states that a survey of state-funded rape crisis centers found that 13 reported a backlog of untested kits in their service areas. It did not specify which centers.
Last year, police for Gwinnett, Unterman’s home county, reported that they had 161 untested kits. Cobb police reported 295, but has since been transferring the kits at a rate of 20 per month to Georgia Bureau of Investigation forensic labs. The process should be done this spring, Cobb police spokesman Sgt. Dana Pierce said.
Sexual assault survivor Lisa Anderson, who spoke at the press conference, said she was saddened when she learned that Unterman was blocking the popular bill. The DNA evidence could be used to stop serial rapists.
“Every minute we wait for justice,” said Anderson, who is executive director of Atlanta Women for Equality. “It makes no sense to me.”
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