Thousands of women in Memphis and Shelby County felt "someone was finally paying attention to them" when the Tennessee House of Representatives voted unanimously Monday evening to drop the statute of limitations on rape cases.
The measure had passed the Senate 31-0 last month, and the House vote was its last big hurdle. On Wednesday, the bill went to Gov. Bill Haslam after the Senate concurred with a House amendment.
"Monday's vote in the state legislature was great news for those of us who have been waiting years for prosecution," said Linda, a 38-year-old U.S. Postal Service employee, wife, mother of two, and a woman who once was raped.
" I've watched the clock tick down for the past five years and wondered if I would ever have my day in court. I felt relieved when I heard that there is no longer a statute of limitations in Tennessee. But, like so many other victims, I am still waiting."
The statute of limitations has been eight years on rape and 15 years on aggravated rape. Once the bill is signed into the law, any number of years may pass before prosecution begins for a rapist, as long as the victim reported the assault within three years of its occurrence.
The news is a game-changer for the more than 12,000 victims in Memphis and Shelby County who are waiting for their rape kits to be tested. Some of the first ones to be logged were reported rapes from the 1980's. The new law would mean that prosecution is still possible, even for 30-year-old cases.
A celebration rally Tuesday evening facilitated by the Memphis Area Women's Council marked the passing of the bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Rep. Joe Towns Jr. (D-Memphis). Many more who did not attend the rally also celebrated its passing.
One was a 22-year-old college student whose rape kit is among those backlogged.
Janese was a 16-year-old junior at Central High School when four men assaulted and raped her after offering her a ride home from a club. She was underage and had no business in a nightclub. But "just about everybody" had fake IDs to get into clubs and buy liquor. Janese always felt that she was to blame for the attack, since her parents thought she was out with her friends.
The harrowing, physical examination that followed "was like being raped all over again," said Janese.
"I knew it hurt my mother to have to go through that. I've never gotten over the guilt I felt about lying to my parents and getting myself into that situation. I don't know that I would really remember how those guys looked. It was dark, but we had hope that the fluids taken from my body would identify them. It's been hard to move on from there, but I've tried. I'm thankful for the law being passed. It gives me some hope, but I wonder if my rape kit will ever be tested."
Janese and others have good reason to wonder. The Memphis Police Department has revealed that not only have thousands of rape kits been stored away, but that some $5.5 million is needed to have those backlogged kits tested. This will take an estimated five years, official sources say.
"What you have is the systemic victimization of these women by the criminal justice system, not only here in Memphis, but all over this country," said Memphis attorney Robert Spence, who presently represents three rape victims caught in the backlog.
"You can imagine how they felt, submitting themselves to a demeaning and embarrassing examination because they wanted to see some measure of justice, but then they learn that their rape kits have been thrown in storage somewhere and locked away," said Spence. "Prosecutions in their cases can help them move on in their lives, and we want these kits tested and those who assaulted and brutalized them brought to justice."
Mayor A C Wharton Jr. has asked the Memphis City Council for $2 million to address the backlog, and Councilman Myron Lowery has proposed another $1 million. As for the remainder of the money, Mayor Wharton said simply that, "the city would find the money."
Former U.S. Atty. Veronica Coleman-Davis was appointed by Wharton in mid-February to head up an investigation into the backlog. She expects that her work with police officials and other staff members will take approximately two months to complete.
Repeated calls to the MPD Public Information Office were still unanswered by press time.
Among cities reporting rape kit backlogs, Memphis had the largest in the country. Detroit has 11,000 untested kits, and the entire state of Texas has 16,000. However, only 17 states have mandated by law that inventory be taken of rape kit backlogs.