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After years of work, North Carolina clears backlog of untested rape kits

Credit: iStock

by Clayton Henkel, NC Newsline
April 10, 2024

When an individual is sexually assaulted, there is a hope the offender will quickly be caught and the victim will see justice. But in 2017, a review by the North Carolina Justice Department revealed that there were thousands of untested rape kits at local law enforcement offices across the state, essentially just gathering dust. A dearth of scientists at the state’s crime lab only made matters worse.

When it was learned that 16,000 rape kits had gone untested, a bipartisan effort led by Attorney General Josh Stein and legislators of both major parties made it a priority to marshal the resources needed to test the evidence and clear the backlog.

On Tuesday, Stein gathered with law enforcement, legislators, victim advocates and survivors to celebrate a major turning point.

“North Carolina has ended the backlog of untested rape kits,” announced Stein. “This milestone was six years in the making.”

Stein credited both parties in the legislature in putting partisanship aside to attack the backlog, and the United States Department of Justice for partnering with his office in providing the initial funding to jump-start the work.

Also on hand for the announcement were Rep. Mary Belk (D-Mecklenburg) and former state Rep. Jamie Boles (R-Moore), two of the co-sponsors on the Survivor Act. That 2019 piece of legislation mandated local law enforcement agencies submit sexual assault kits for testing to an accredited lab and provided funding for the State Crime Lab to hire new forensic scientists.

“We lose sight sometimes of the fact that survivors and communities want people to be held accountable for the crimes,” Belk said. “They want effective law enforcement that respects them and follows through on its promises. That is what we were trying to build here, and I think that we got it right.”

With the passage of the Survivor Act, the submission of sexual assault kits increased from roughly 600 a year to now 2,200.

Raleigh Police Chief Estella Patterson said the reduced backlog of untested sexual assault kits has helped her department’s investigators and detectives solve cold cases that were decades old.

Most recently, because of the work of the state crime lab and Raleigh detectives, a 34-year-old case was solved, and the alleged offender has been charged.

“Although the survivor in this case has passed, we hope that identifying the offender has brought solace to her family,” said Chief Patterson.

Monika Johnson-Hostler, executive director of the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault, said it was important for her to recognize the unwavering perseverance of survivors, who worked behind the scenes make this an issue that could no longer be forgotten.

“We collectively are showing them that we do believe that the criminal legal system can work on behalf of sexual assault survivors. And we will believe them, we will see them, and we will collectively continue to move forward,” said Johnson-Hostler.

Miss Linda, who asked that her last name not be used, shared that she became a victim in 1992.  DNA testing in her case eventually brought her justice.

“Rape kits give the victim a voice. A voice empowers victims to learn how to heal from the inside to the outside,” she said. “Do not give into a lifetime of fear.”

Attorney General Stein said to make sure that a new backlog of kits never builds up again in North Carolina, each rape kit is barcoded so that prosecutors, law enforcement and victims can track the status of their kits.

“We never want to be in a position again where victims have no idea where their kits are as they wait years and years and years.”

Stein said the Justice Department and advocates will be talking to legislators during the upcoming short session about the need for additional resources to pursue these cold cases.

“When we announce the results of the Sexual Assault Kit Inventory in 2019, we promised that we would put every effort to delivering justice for victims and survivors. I could not be more grateful that we are delivering on that promise together.”

NC Newsline is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. NC Newsline maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Rob Schofield for questions: info@ncnewsline.com. Follow NC Newsline on Facebook and Twitter.

This story is republished from NC Newsline under a Creative Commons license. Read the original story.