NASHVILLE, Tenn. >> With possibly hundreds of thousands of rape kits untested across the country, a number of states are proposing legislation to address backlogs that in at least one case dates back nearly three decades.
In Memphis, Tenn., alone, there are more than 12,000 untested rape kits going back to the 1980s, according to the New York-based Rape Kit Action Project, which has been tracking the backlogs nationwide. In the entire state of Texas, there are about 16,000 untested kits collecting dust in police evidence rooms.
Tennessee is among at least 17 states with proposals that range from requiring law enforcement agencies to inventory their rape kits to analyzing them in a certain amount of time. Three states — Colorado, Illinois and Texas — have passed laws that mandate a statewide accounting of untested rape kits.
Most of the other states’ proposals favor the inventory measure that would require all law enforcement agencies that store rape kits to count the number of untested kits. Rape Project spokeswoman Natasha Alexenko estimates there are about 400,000 nationwide that fall into that category.
"Until we enact this kind of legislation where we’re counting them, we really have no idea," said Alexenko, a rape victim whose rape kit was finally tested after nearly 10 years, and her attacker arrested after a match was found.
Rape victim Meaghan Ybos of Memphis has been crusading for legislation to address the backlogs for several years. The 27-year-old was 16 when she was sexually assaulted in her suburban home in 2003. She underwent a forensic rape exam, but never heard anything else about her kit.
In 2012, she was watching the local news and learned police had arrested a suspected serial rapist in the same neighborhood where she lived.
"I just knew it was the same person," recalled Ybos, who called police, told them about her assault and persuaded them to reopen her case. Her rape kit was eventually examined and the suspect’s DNA and that in her kit matched. The suspect pleaded guilty in her case and is currently incarcerated.
But Ybos, who is also supporting a proposal to lift Tennessee’s eight-year statute of limitation on rapes, said it shouldn’t have taken her that long to get justice.
"They never tried to process it until I called … and asked them," Ybos said of her rape kit.
A spokeswoman for the Memphis Police Department recently told The Associated Press that she couldn’t comment about the backlog because the department is in the middle of litigation concerning a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of women whose rape kits haven’t been tested.
But when asked about the situation at an event earlier this month, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton didn’t mince words.
"We had a systemic failure here," he said of the backlog.
Last year, Congress officially recognized the backlog of untested rape kits as a national problem in passing the Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Registry Act, or SAFER, which seeks to provide data on the number of unsolved rape cases awaiting testing and establish better standards for the tracking, storage and use of DNA evidence in sexual assault cases.
The federal government is also providing funding to help cover the costs for testing the kits, which usually contain swabs, evidence envelopes and information sheets detailing the examination. They cost at least $500 to test, a process that involves several steps, including determining whether there’s sufficient material from which a subsequent DNA test may derive a reliable sample.
In 2003, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation received a grant for more than $3 million to test rape kits. TBI spokeswoman Illana Tate said the agency solicited kits from all law enforcement agencies in Tennessee, but she doesn’t know exactly how many were submitted.
Wharton has asked the Memphis City Council for a million dollars to help with the backlog. He said a little over 2,000 of the kits have been sent to laboratories, and that it could take up to five years for all the kits to be tested.
Memphis, like other cities, is operating on a tight budget. Its police and fire officials haven’t been able to get new training classes due to the city’s strapped finances. But Wharton said he’s determined to get the money needed to address the city’s backlog, even if it means reaching out to philanthropic groups for donations.
"Every day that a sexual assault kit sits untested represents justice delayed," he said.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican and chairman of the Council of State Governments, is the sponsor of the inventory measure in Tennessee. He believes there are other municipalities within the state experiencing backlogs.
"We’ve got to quantify the magnitude of this problem," Norris said. "We know that Memphis has somewhere in excess of 12,000 untested forensic evidence kits, but we need to know how many other local law enforcement authorities may have similar backlogs."
Another Tennessee proposal would require law enforcement agencies to submit rape kits to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation within 10 days of receipt and that they be analyzed within six months. However, that measure could be costly and is unlikely to pass.
"If the proposal is passed where TBI has to return kits in six months, we would need to double our manpower and require new buildings to accommodate new hires and equipment," Tate said.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, a co-sponsor of the TBI proposal, said some type of legislation needs to be passed to address the backlogs because besides rape victims there are individuals who have been falsely accused of rape and need the kits tested to be exonerated.
"They could have been incarcerated while waiting for the evidence to clear them, or maybe they pled down to a lesser charge just to get out of jail," said the Memphis Democrat.
Alexenko said the inventory proposal is more likely to pass in Tennessee and other states because it "creates a dialogue" between law enforcement agencies and city officials to begin to try to address the problem.
"Each rape kit represents a human being whose body was a crime scene," she said.
Natasha’s Justice Project: http://natashasjusticeproject.org/
Joyful Heart Foundation: http://www.joyfulheartfoundation.org/
Associated Press writer Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tenn., contributed to this report.