State Sen. Wendy Davis, the Democratic candidate for Texas governor who rose to national fame last year by spearheading a fight against a draconian abortion bill, held a press conference Wednesday to highlight her ideas on how to fight sexual assault. Talking about her legislative efforts to process the estimated backlog of 16,000 untested rape kits in the state, Davis said she wanted to take the solution a step further. She proposed lifting the statute of limitations for sexual assault entirely, in no small part to make sure that rapists don’t escape justice just because a rape kit lingered untested for so long that the window for prosecution closed.
“While the bills I authored are helping to address the backlog of rape kits, the fact that we would throw survivors’ trauma and courage on a shelf for months or years without a second thought is offensive to them and to everything we say we stand for,” Davis said. “But then to turn around and make survivors pay the price for our failure and neglect by denying them justice is almost criminal in itself.”
Last week, Davis highlighted her concerns about the statute of limitations on rape—which is currently 10 years in Texas—by campaigning with Lavinia Masters. Masters was raped by an unknown suspect when she was 13 years old in 1985, and a rape kit was administered but left unprocessed. In 2005, her unsolved case was reopened and, with new DNA testing technology, police were able to identify a suspect through a DNA match. Unfortunately, the statute of limitations had run out, so there was no prosecution.
Masters’ case is just as much about evolving technology as it is about the bureaucratic backlog of unprocessed rape kits, but with 16,000 untested kits to go through, the concern that some rapists will go free just because no one bothered to process the kits in time is a very serious one.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s extraordinary coverage of an effort to process old rape kits in Cleveland shows how much the statute of limitations matters in these cases. Ohio’s statute of limitations on rape is twice as long as Texas’ at 20 years, and having that extra time has helped a lot. The processing effort has led to more than 100 indictments, many of which go all the way back to the ‘90s. In one case, the rape kit was successfully completed and prosecutors were given the name of the suspect only two days before the 20th anniversary of the rape. Prosecutors went on a mad scramble to find the victim and get the paperwork together, going to a grand jury with a mere six hours left before the statute of limitations ran out. The rapist ended up pleading guilty.
Obviously, in an ideal world, rape kits would be processed quickly, and no rape cases would sit around unsolved for 10 or 20 years because of bureaucratic morass. But as the Cleveland example shows, that is exactly what has been happening. Lifting or at least extending the statute of limitations is a necessary fix to deal with a problem that has been going on for far too long.