"Melissa's Law" Heads to Oregon Governor

Brenda Tracy and I are very excited to announce that following a unanimous Senate vote on Feb. 26, 2016. On March 2, 2016, the Oregon House voted to pass SB 1571 and send “Melissa’s Law” to Oregon Governor Kate Brown for approval and ratification into law! 

The inspiration behind this law to improve police response and procedures around sexual assault evidence kits stems in part from what happened to Brenda more than a decade ago. Following a brutal gang rape, Brenda went through the invasive rape kit examination procedure, only to learn years later that law enforcement destroyed her rape kit (along with other evidence in her case) several years before the criminal statute of limitations had even expired. Brenda’s case became the focus of two in-depth articles by award-winning journalist John Canzano’ on the injustice Brenda, and so many other survivors, have experienced.   

With the enthusiastic consent of Mary and Tom Bittler, we named SB 1571 “Melissa’s Law” after the Bittler’s 14-year-old daughter, whose life was tragically taken when she was brutally raped and murdered by a serial offender in 2001. Following Melissa’s murder, Portland homicide detectives conducted an investigation to determine whether they could locate attacks with a similar modus operandi and identify the person who cut Melissa’s life short. The detectives were able to identify three similar attacks on young girls in 1997 and found that two of those girls had rape kits that were never tested. After the detectives sent the kits to the lab for testing, the results of the analysis confirmed that the same man who murdered Melissa also raped those young girls more than four years prior. Had law enforcement tested the kits immediately following the crimes, the suspect may have been identified sooner, and Melissa might still be alive today.

Despite repeated promises to improve policies and procedures regarding the timely testing and analysis of rape kits, fifteen years later, the number of untested kits in the possession of the Portland Police Bureau more than doubled: from approximately 1,000 untested kits at the time of Melissa’s death to more than 2,000 in storage today. Following an investigation by the Oregonian and a voluntary inventory by the Oregon State Police last year, we now know that there are approximately 5,000 untested kits across the state of Oregon (and that number does not account for kits that have been labeled anonymous).

Senator Sara Gelser (D - Corvallis) agreed to sponsor this bill to address mandatory testing and retention of rape kits, stating: “[w]hether you are a sexual assault victim in Benton County or a victim in Morrow County, you should expect to have the same police response and know that your rape kit is going to be tested.”

Thanks to Senator Gelser’s support, SB 1571 was introduced in January 2016 and moved forward with the bi-partisan support of thirty-six chief sponsors and ten regular sponsors. 

“Melissa’s Law” passed in both the Oregon Senate and House with unanimous approval and to our surprise, included $1.5 million in extra funding to help staff crime labs and ensure the timely testing of kits.  

Under “Melissa’s Law,” Oregon now mandates testing of all rape kits except for “anonymous” or “Jane Doe” kits. Law enforcement agencies are required to obtain kits from hospitals within seven days after they are notified, and to the kits to the Oregon Department of State Police forensic laboratory fourteen days after that. State and local law enforcement agencies are required to adopt written policies and procedures regarding the handling of kits, and ensure that the results are uploaded into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS). To prevent what happened in Brenda’s case from occurring again, the law expressly states that law enforcement must retain all kits – both reported and “Jane Doe” kits – for a minimum of sixty (60) years before destroying them. 

Furthermore, the law requires law enforcement to delegate at least one person within the agency to answer survivors’ questions regarding the status of their kits. If a victim requests information about their kit, the agency must endeavor to respond within 30 days. The survivor can also designate an individual to receive this information on their behalf.

“Melissa’s Law” also contains provisions to ensure accountability and continued awareness of this issue moving forward, including a mandated written report by the State Police regarding progress on rape kit testing as well as the establishment of a task force comprised of sixteen members, including legislators from both the House and Senate, and individuals appointed by the Governor that represent law enforcement, survivors, advocates, prosecutors, criminal defense attorneys, and sexual assault nurse examiners. The task force’s job will be to address important areas issues such as: (1) improvements for victim access to and rights regarding evidence in their cases other than rape kits; (2) law enforcement training on responding to and investigating sexual assaults; (3) measures that would allow for testing of “Jane Doe” kits if a victim would like her kit to be tested but remain anonymous; and (4)  funding in order to increase system efficiency, provide victim notification and reduce testing times.

In passing this bill, the Oregon legislature spoke loud and clear, and sent a decisive message that sexual assault survivors’ matter. Today, we are so very proud of our great state, and we are so deeply appreciative of all who have been a part of this process! 

- By Jacqueline Swanson, March 16, 2015. Ms. Swanson is an attorney dedicated to representing survivors of sexual violence. Since meeting Brenda Tracy in 2014, she has worked pro-bono in order to effect legal and legislative change for survivors in Oregon and nationwide. 

ENDTHEBACKLOG is a program of the Joyful Heart Foundation to shine a light on the backlog of untested rape kits throughout the United States. Our goal is to end this injustice by conducting groundbreaking research identifying the extent of the nation’s backlog and best practices for eliminating it, expanding the national dialogue on rape kit testing through increased public awareness, engaging communities and government agencies and officials and advocating for comprehensive rape kit reform legislation and policies at the local, state and federal levels. We urge you to learn more about the backlog, where it exists and why it matters. We invite you to take action and support efforts to test rape kits. Help us send the message that we must take rape seriously.

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