Spotlight on Memphis: Updates on the City’s Backlog

On June 17, former U.S. Attorney Veronica Coleman-Davis, whom Mayor A C Wharton hired in March 2014 to determine the causes of the city’s backlog, issued her findings. The report concludes that there was “no malice, wanton disregard or conspiracies to ignore established policies, procedures or standard practices in place” for handling sexual assault evidence kits. Coleman-Davis does acknowledge, however, “a general and collective failure to understand the importance of DNA testing as was reflected in common practices in place locally and nationwide.”  

According to the report, in her investigation, Coleman-Davis visited the storage rooms housing the unprocessed rape kits. She also interviewed Memphis law enforcement, media, advocacy leaders and government officials. While the report does not assign blame to any single individual or entity, Coleman-Davis told WREG that she believes that changes in leadership might have contributed to the backlog:

“I think the point I was trying to make is that because there were multiple administrations, multiple changes in police directors, multiple changes in victim advocacy groups, rape crisis…those changes from administration to administration led to varying degrees of paying attention to or not paying attention to the sexual assault kits.” 

Some stakeholders in the community were disappointed with the outcome of the report. A survivor who filed one of the lawsuits against the city questioned Coleman-Davis’s decision not to place responsibility for the backlog on anyone in law enforcement or government. She explained to the Memphis Daily News:

“If you don’t hold anyone accountable, then anything that you do, it just kind of lacks credibility in my mind. Anything they do going forward will still feel incomplete.”

The report also discusses the city’s steps toward creating a new approach that will prevent a future buildup of rape kits. In January 2014, Mayor Wharton established a Sexual Assault Evidence Kit Cross Functional Team, of which Joyful Heart is a member, that will “receive input and suggestions from a broad cross section of people who are, and have been, involved with sexual assault victims and cases.” 

In other news, on June 12, WREG reported that the city filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit brought against it by three women who were assaulted by a serial rapist.

The victims filed the lawsuit back in March. According to WREG, “The complaint alleges negligence, deprivation of the victims’ civil rights, emotional distress, breach of contract, gross negligence, violation of equal protection and violation of due process.”

While in its motion to dismiss the city states that “the plaintiffs’ injuries were past the one year statute of limitations” that applies to this type of lawsuit, the rapes the victims suffered were not actually referenced in their suit. Instead, the lawsuit centers on the city allowing thousands of rape kits to languish in police storage.

In fact, the victims argue that Memphis “‘actively and intentionally’ concealed its mismanagement of rape kit processing.” As the plaintiffs learned about the city’s rape kit backlog in August 2013, they argue the statute of limitations would expire one year later, in August 2014. 

- By Jaclyn Katz, July 2, 2014

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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