COMMENTARY: Nevada lawmakers must act on rape kit backlog

In 1993, Natasha was raped and robbed at gunpoint by an unknown assailant in New York City. She went to the hospital, where a medical forensic exam was done, but the sexual assault kit containing evidence from the assault sat in the police department’s evidence room for nine years.

It took many more years — until 2007 — for Natasha’s attacker to be identified. He was caught after committing a non-sex crime in Las Vegas, thanks to Nevada’s DNA arrestee law. It was then that DNA from the rapist was matched to the evidence from her assault.

In the years that he was out on the streets after Natasha’s rape, Victor Rondon went on a cross-country crime spree.

Every year, thousands of individuals who have been raped take the step of reporting the crime to the police. They submit to an invasive examination of their bodies and have evidence collected in a process that typically takes four to six hours. The evidence is saved in a rape kit.

DNA evidence is an invaluable investigative tool. When tested, rape kit evidence can identify an unknown assailant, reveal serial offenders and exonerate the innocent. Rapists are often serial offenders who are engaged in other crimes, including domestic violence and murder. They commit crimes against strangers, intimate partners and acquaintances.

Just since January 1, 61 rape kit reform bills have been introduced in 29 states to begin to reform policies across the Unites States. A number of proposals are currently before the Nevada Legislature, most notably Assembly Bill 97. This bill addresses timelines for the processing and handling of rape kits, and requires annual reporting from each crime lab in the state. This reporting requirement is essential. When the extent of a jurisdiction’s backlog is revealed, real reform can begin.

We stand with advocates in Nevada to strongly support these proposals. It is time for Nevada to act.

Detroit has become one of the best examples of what a city can do when it has the political will to address its backlog. In 2009, officials discovered a backlog of 11,341 untested kits. Testing to date has resulted in 2,616 DNA matches and the identification of 784 potential serial rapists, resulting in 78 convictions to date. DNA from these offenders has been linked to crimes committed in 40 states and Washington, D.C.

We know this kind of commitment requires resources. That’s why we and our partners have worked with allies in the federal government to dedicate resources and research to help fix the problem. The Nevada Attorney General’s office has already been the recipient of these funds, which are helping sustain this work despite the lack of movement in the Legislature.

This is not a time for complacency or further delay. We stand with every survivor in Nevada who has done everything society asks: reporting the crime to the police and enduring an invasive search of their body for DNA evidence left behind by the attacker.

Our message to Nevada legislators is clear: Survivors and communities cannot wait another year or another legislative session for justice and safety. Pass the pending legislation.

Natasha Alexenko is the founder of Natasha’s Justice Project. Ilse Knecht is the director of policy and advocacy for the Joyful Heart Foundation.

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