March 2, 2016 felt like Christmas morning to me here in Florida. There were no festive decorations or cold spells to ease the 80 degree heat, but there was an undeniable sense of excitement and hope for thousands of rape survivors across the state.
Our gift came in the form of new sexual assault kit legislation, SB 636, that unanimously passed both the Florida House and Senate and is currently waiting on Governor Rick Scott’s desk for final review and signature. This legislation is long overdue and very much anticipated by rape survivors who have felt like justice has been unfairly suspended for them for far too long. This day was about hope and the possibility of closure.
As a lifelong resident of the Sunshine State who also happens to be a survivor of torture at the hands of a prolific serial rapist, my passion for this issue has been burning in me for many years. In September 2010, I was invited to share my story when the United States Congress held a hearing about why rape is the most underreported and under prosecuted crime in America. The statistics coming out of that hearing were alarming: only 2% of rapists ever see a day in jail with 98% left free to re-offend. Many factors go into why this happens, but so many of the variables center around the way victims and evidence are handled in the process.
A big push to audit the number of backlogged rape kits began to sweep the nation as it came to light that potentially hundreds of thousands of these kits were sitting in law enforcement storage facilities across America. Rapists were walking the streets and survivors were being denied the opportunity to seek justice as long as these kits were delayed in going to labs. Eventually, the demand to audit kits here in Florida began to reach a fevered pitch.
Facing up to a problem and encouraging accountability can be difficult tasks, but in summer 2015, the state legislature agreed on a budget bill that would direct $300,000 to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to count untested kits across the state. It was a bold move designed to shed light on a potentially huge problem. The audit was published in January 2015 and the results were astounding: 13,435 backlogged kits were found across Florida according to the 279 agencies that participated in counting. That is 13,435 individual survivors who went through the grueling ordeal of having a rape kit done only to have it sit untouched in storage.
Thankfully, recognizing the enormity and seriousness of the problem, criminal justice agencies across the state applied for grants from the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The state received more than $5.3 million to address rape kit issues - a much-needed investment.
When you take the time to ponder the enormity of that situation, and each of those heartbreaking stories, it is mind numbing. I have so many memories of my own forensic exam that are triggered when I think about this. The exam itself took over two hours and was excruciating. I had been abducted, raped and beaten and having to then have to endure scraping, swabbing and photographing of my most intimate and injured parts was incredibly invasive. When it was all over, I watched the nurse hand the box of DNA evidence over to the law enforcement officer who had come to pick it up at the hospital. It never occurred to me that the box, which contained my best chance for a successful prosecution someday, would not be taken immediately to a lab. Thankfully, in my case, it was turned over relatively quickly.
Four years later, that DNA evidence helped to secure a conviction for my rapist and he received seven life sentences. Unfortunately, as the 2015 Florida audit revealed, over 13,000 other survivors had a different experience. My case was more the exception than the rule. Those survivors are the ones I fight for.
I am so proud of Florida for voting to spend the necessary resources to conduct a comprehensive audit and work to ensure this does not happen again. Thanks to the unanimous passing of SB 636 and Representative Lizbeth Benaquisto’s leadership on this issue, Florida can now assure its citizens that the backlog problem will not continue. According to the bill, law enforcement agencies are required to submit rape kits to the crime lab within 21 days if requested by the victim or victim's representative, and the victim must be informed of their right to demand testing. In addition, the bill requires the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) to submit a plan and report of how to address the backlog of untested kits to the Governor, President of the Senate and Speaker of the House by June 30, 2017.
This is such an amazing step forward for the state of Florida. It is important for survivors to know that their voices made a real difference in getting this bill passed. Their legislators, through unanimous approval, recognize that delaying the testing of DNA evidence is a true injustice to survivors. Hopefully, this bill, and legislation pending in other states, will empower people who have been victimized to speak out on an issue that has long been in the shadows.
Thank you Florida lawmakers for standing up for survivors of sexual violence. Every kit matters!