State Attorney General Josh Stein announces the details of The Survivor Act, a bill proposed in the state Legislature that outlines a protocol for law enforcement agencies to follow on when and how to submit rape kits to the state crime lab after a sexual assault. The bill would also appropriate $6 million to test untested rape kits statewide, which are estimated to be around 17,000. Kate Martin/Carolina Public Press
In Jan. 2019, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein announces the details of The Survivor Act, a bill then proposed in the General Assembly to create a protocol for law enforcement agencies to follow on when and how to submit rape kits to the state crime lab. Kate Martin / Carolina Public Press

RALEIGH — State Attorney General Josh Stein unveiled a bipartisan bill Tuesday that he said would hold rapists accountable, reduce or eliminate the backlog of rape kits and create a new protocol for testing new rape kits.

Far more than 10,000 rape kits around the state have not been tested, Stein said. Some have sat in storage for decades. Though recent funding has helped chip away at that total, Stein said a proposed bill in the General Assembly would help provide $6 million more to test old kits.

That bill would also outline a protocol for law enforcement officers to follow when they receive a new rape kit and provide a path forward to test thousands of old ones.

“To the rapists in North Carolina: No matter how long ago your crime was, we are coming for you,” Stein said. “That is what the Survivor Act is all about: putting survivors first and holding rapists accountable.”

The attorney general described the large number of untested kits as “a critical public safety issue.”

He was flanked by some of the bill’s sponsors, Reps. James Boles Jr., R-Moore, Carson Smith, R-Pender, and William Richardson, D-Cumberland.

After a rape, the survivor’s body is a crime scene. The survivor must travel to a hospital that has a nurse certified to perform what is essentially a forensic examination. That journey can take an hour or more in rural areas. The examination itself can take several hours, during which the nurse meticulously collects hair, fibers and bodily fluids from the survivor’s body. This evidence may one day be tested for DNA. The nurse also documents injuries and collects the survivor’s clothing.

All of that evidence is placed in a box. For thousands of rape kits in North Carolina, the process stopped there. The kits sat in storage for years and sometimes decades.

In Fayetteville, one kit sat on a shelf for 30 years. The Fayetteville Police Department sent it in for testing, using money from a grant to pay the cost, said Fayetteville police Lt. John Somerindyke. The DNA from the kit matched, and on Monday, the department arrested the suspect in a “stranger rape” case.

“I say this with absolute confidence,” Somerindyke said. “Every rapist is a serial rapist. When we do not test all of our sexual assault kits and all of our available DNA evidence, we are allowing these serial rapists free rein to continue to rape.”

Already the state has made strides in tracking new kits and testing old ones with $4 million in grant money. If the bill passes — and lawmakers there Tuesday said they thought it would — the $6 million would pay to put a sizable dent in the number of backlogged rape kits, Stein said.

Law enforcement agencies would then catalog their kits and prioritize them for testing. Not all of the kits will be eligible for testing. Kits may have languished for decades in less than ideal storage conditions.

“We just found out there was 30 years of inventory (in the rape kit backlog),” said Boles, who is co-sponsoring the legislation. “Out of these (remaining kits), how many are still testable?”

Boles said the bill is a priority for both chambers of the General Assembly and for both major parties.

“This is not a political football,” Boles said.

According to the proposed legislation, police agencies statewide would also have a protocol to follow after receiving a rape kit, which gives them 45 days to conduct an investigation before sending the kit to a lab for testing and possible match with the FBI DNA database called CODIS.

A review team will decide which old kits are sent to the state lab for testing first. Members of the team could include victim advocates, survivors of sexual assault, members of a forensic lab, prosecutors and law enforcement. The group will prioritize which untested kits to send first. Those sent first will have high evidentiary value, a potential for a CODIS hit, victim participation and a variety of other factors.

After receiving notification that the DNA from a kit matches a DNA profile in CODIS, the department must then tell the state crime lab within 15 days of an arrest or conviction related to the hit.

“The message we are giving to survivors is their voices matter and their evidence matters. It is not evidence in a box, but it is part of who they are,” said Monika Johnson Hostler, executive director with N.C. Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

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