In Portland, Oregon, more than 5,000 untested rape kits were discovered in evidence storage lockers in 2015. Three years later, the backlog in testing those kits was down to almost zero and five suspects had been convicted.
Tennessee law enforcement officials are now looking to the Portland model to provide justice and accountability for sexual assault survivors.
The Jim Coley Protection for Rape Survivors act passed with rare bipartisan support by the Tennessee Legislature in May. While the law went into effect July 1, its key provision —implementing an electronic tracking system for sexual assault kits that is accessible to victims and law enforcement — may take a year to be up and running.
New software developed by the Portland Police Bureau will allow Tennessee law enforcement, prosecutors and victims to monitor the status of rape kits — a packet containing evidence taken from victims' bodies, clothing and crimes scenes to extract DNA and other evidence to help identify perpetrators and document injuries.
Victims will be able to enter an identification number to track the status of their kits — whether they decide to talk to law enforcement or not — at every step of the process of collecting evidence, testing DNA for matches, and uploading it into a national crime database.
Nate Bradley, general counsel for the Sexual Assault Center, said the electronic tracking system will give sexual assault victims in Tennessee a measure of control over an often disempowering criminal justice system.
"We get questions all the time: 'do you know where my rape kit is?'," Bradley said. "There is no information we've been able to give them. Now they will be able to track in real time where their kit is. It's a little amount of tangible control in a process that strips victims of power and control."
Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia have implemented electronic tracking systems for law enforcement to track rape kits — with 24 states and D.C. also granting victims the right to know the status of the kits.
The Jim Coley Act, named after a former Republican lawmaker who championed better protections for rape victims, is the latest effort to address a history of failures in Tennessee to collect, preserve and process sexual assault evidence.
In 2014, there were 12,000 untested rape kits discovered in Memphis alone. The city became embroiled in a federal lawsuit over its mishandling of the crucial evidence, including dumping kits in a landfill. For years, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has worked to resolve a backlog in untested rape kits that has left thousands of sexual assault cases unsolved across the state.
DNA is only as useful as finding a match to a perpetrator. But law enforcement departments across Tennessee have also failed to collect suspect DNA. More than 76,000 DNA samples from convicted felons dating back to 1998 are missing from a state DNA database, the Tennessee Lookout reported in April. The TBI obtained a $1 million federal grant this year to conduct an accurate count of missing perpetrator DNA and ensure they are collected going forward.
Tennessee is not alone. Across the nation law enforcement agencies have come under scrutiny for failing to test and track rape evidence that is vital to identifying, arresting and prosecuting perpetrators of sexual violence. Other states have similarly discovered perpetrator DNA has gone uncollected.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation expects to have the Portland system, known as SAMS-Track, in place before a July 2022 deadline, spokesman Josh Devine said last week.
The law also gives other protections to victims of sexual assault: it requires law enforcement to pick up sexual assault evidence kits within 48 hours and enter rape kit evidence information into the tracking system within 10 days. The law also requires notification to victims of a DNA match and gives victims the right to receive a copy of the complete forensic analysis of their sexual assault kit. The law also prohibits the use of rape kit evidence to prosecute victims for misdemeanor drug offenses.
Read more at TennesseeLookout.com.