RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- On Wednesday, Attorney General Mark Herring announced that Virginia’s backlog of untested rape kits has been eliminated and “is never coming back.” Herring believes Virginia is the seventh state to accomplish this feet.
For years, evidence collected from rape victims and then placed in kits collected dust in police departments all over Virginia. When a sexual assault occurs, victims are often taken to hospitals where specially trained health professionals carefully collect DNA and other evidence that could be used to secure a conviction.
An 8News investigation by Kerri O’Brien first exposed the state’s backlog in 2013. When AG Herring took office in 2014, he said nearly 3,000 untested kits were collecting dust on shelves across the commonwealth.
“When I first got into office, I learned that the backlog had grown to three thousand untested [PERK] kits — that number was just shocking to me,” Herring said, adding that one untested kit is one too many.
A years-long project to address it overseen by Herring’s office resulted in 2,665 kits being tested, 851 new DNA profiles being uploaded into a national database and 354 hits being sent to law enforcement agencies for further investigation.
“Each of these kits represented a survivor’s trauma and each of these could have held key evidence in bringing a perpetrator to justice, but they had been pushed to the side and never dealt with,” Herring said.
Herring said one man has been charged in Spotsylvania as a result and he anticipates more charges may be filed as localities reopen cases.
Herring said the completion of this project marks the closing of a chapter where sexual assault cases were ‘swept under the rug’ in the commonwealth.
“It means that a wrong has been righted, that justice is closer for more survivors and Virginia is a safer place,” Herring said.
In total, 354 DNA profiles were matched.
One of those 354 matches included Linwood Scott, whose DNA was a hit for an alleged rape in Norfolk 26 years ago.
The victim in the case issued an exclusive statement to WAVY-TV 10 after watching the attorney general’s remarks, shown below:
“After watching Attorney General Mark Herrings [televised ] announcement this morning I feel like a weight has been lifted off the chest of so many victims of sexual assault. It’s very hard to put it into words but it gave me chills down my spine and allowed me to finally take a deep breath of relief. I personally have dealt with not knowing what happened to my rape kit and if it was tested or not for over 20 years. Today’s news is a victory that is a long time coming and I am so thankful to Mr. Herring for his diligent work to get this backlog cleared. All of the years of looking over my shoulder and hearing a voice or smelling a smell that took me back to the night that I was raped at knifepoint in my own home finally will be coming to an end. Each of these kits represents someone like me. Someone whose lives were forever changed in so many ways and we can now move forward knowing that these perk kits will be Processed immediately and never again to be left on the shelf to collect dust. Hearing the news of this cleared backlog makes me so happy and very appreciative of all the work that has finally been done to give us all justice. This truly is a victory– victory not only for the victims before the society in general.”
Debbie Smith began her advocacy career after being shown a storage room filled ‘from floor to ceiling’ with untested rape kits. Smith was kidnapped and raped in the woods behind her home in 1989 in Williamsburg. Her husband, who is a police officer, was asleep inside.
“Each of those kits represents a sexual assault victim that endured that four- to six-hour stressful exam as well as continued trauma and embarrassment for something that they are not in any way responsible for,” Smith said, visibly emotional at Wednesday’s press conference.
“I remember the day that my husband came in and delivered the message that they had gotten a cold hit identification of my perpetrator. It was the first time in six and a half years that I took a deliberate breath. I wanted to live again and it meant that I could live without fear,” Smith said.
The elimination of the backlog is just one part of what Herring called ‘a transformation’ in the state’s approach to sexual assault cases.
In 2016, a law was passed that mandates the immediate testing of rape kits, ensuring that a backlog cannot build up again.
The Department of Forensic Science has also created the first statewide tracking system so that law enforcement, hospitals and victims can check the status of a kit at any time.
Herring said the state has also invested in the latest survivor-centered and trauma-informed training for law enforcement agencies to make sure victims are not retraumatized during investigations.
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