A June 27th Dallas News article recently sparked public outcry when it revealed that over eight hundred moldy rape kits were found decaying in the Austin Police Department. Rape kits have had a long history as crucial components of the forensic process for sexual assault cases. The first rape kit was developed in the 1970s by Martha Goddard, founder of the Chicago-based group Citizens Committee for Victim Assistance. According to the group’s assistant director, Susan Irion, the rape kit was a revolution in forensic evidence because, “it raised awareness about how to have an effective prosecution, which included properly supporting a victim. It gave legitimacy to the whole area of sexual assault, recognizing it as a serious felony that had to be handled properly.” As access and usage of rape kits has grown over the past 40 years, it becomes increasingly essential that these kits are efficiently tested and evaluated by qualified forensic experts. A failure to properly store, test, and analyze the crucial DNA information included in rape kits not only compromises the evidentiary process, but importantly delegitimizes the experiences of sexual assault survivors who already face the threat of re-victimization at the hands of the criminal justice system. It is for these reasons that the Austin Police Department’s mishandling of countless rape kits is unacceptable.
According to a Texan nonprofit called End the Backlog, there are over 19,000 untested rape kits being held in storage throughout the state. These rape kits undoubtedly hold vital forensic information relating to thousands of sexual assault cases, and failure to quickly and effectively process this information is a failure on the part of police departments—one that ultimately compromises the criminal justice process as a whole. The Sixth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to a “fair and speedy trial”. However, when a sexual assault defendant navigates a system like the Austin Police Department, they cannot be sure that the forensic evidence necessary to make a fair and swift criminal judgment will be properly handled. This is a systemic injustice for survivors of sexual assault that ought to be addressed through support of organizations such as End the Backlog and other groups that work to increase the efficiency and sustainability of forensic testing for survivors of sexual assault.