"Every day that a sexual assault kit goes untested is delayed justice, and justice delayed is justice denied," said Mayor A C Wharton Jr., referencing the over 12,000 untested rape kits in the City of Memphis.
Wednesday morning in the Hall of Mayors at City Hall, Wharton addressed what he referred to as a "systematic failure." He plans to develop a cross-functional team with representatives from law enforcement, and legal and victim advocate groups to address the rape kit-testing debacle.
To jumpstart those efforts, Wharton announced a partnership with the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization that has conducted groundbreaking research in identifying the nation's backlog of rape kits and best practices for eliminating rape kit testing delays.
Specifically, Joyful Heart will "identify and make use of best practices for the city as we change, implement, and monitor testing moving forward," said Wharton.
Sarah Tofte, vice president of Policy & Advocacy for Joyful Heart Foundation, said Memphis has the largest known backlog in the country.
"The news in Memphis is devastating, but Memphis will become a model city for addressing the issue of rape reform," said Tofte, adding that that she has never seen a city respond so aggressively to such a problem.
The mayor has hired former U.S. Atty. Veronica Coleman-Davis to aid the reviewing of current policies and procedures for dealing with kits collected in the future.
"New procedures for dealing with sexual assault kits were implemented in September of 2013 requiring that all kits collected are sent to a lab for DNA testing," said Wharton. "Since then, 2,226 of the outstanding 12,164 kits have been tested using $1 million in funds for the Memphis Police Department and the Tennessee Office of Criminal Justice Programs."
But with additional testing there are additional costs. The city needs $5.5 million to cover the cost of the rape kit testing.
"We will find the money," said Wharton, noting that he intends to ask the city council for $1 million during next week's city council meeting.
"I don't know any member of the council that will say no next week," said City Councilman Myron Lowery.
That still would leave over $4 million outstanding. Wharton said he is working with the Gov. Bill Haslam and local philanthropies to raise the rest of the money needed to test all the backlogged rape kits.
Megahan Ybos attended the conference with a singular focus.
"I was raped back in 2003 and my rape kit was not processed for nine years," said Ybos. " I am here to show support to the mayor with his partnership with the Joyful Heart Foundation."
Sexual assault kits are more than pieces of evidence collected after a crime, said Wharton.
"It is a story of a woman who has been violated in a most heinous way. Survivors should have confidence that the perpetrators will be brought to justice."