- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 16, 2014

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) - Memphis is making progress in testing its backlog of 12,000 rape kits, including the filing of 14 indictments against sexual-assault suspects, but more work is needed to reduce the number of kits that sat ignored since the 1980s, officials said Wednesday.

Officials from the Memphis Police Department and other agencies held an information session to update the public about efforts to reduce the backlog. The meeting came days after the state Legislature in Nashville declined to provide $2 million for rape-kit testing in Tennessee, a decision that has drawn criticism from rape victim advocates.

Word of the backlog emerged last year, and it has led to a lawsuit from rape victims. Experts say Memphis has one of the nation’s largest known backlogs, and the Joyful Heart Foundation, a national organization with experience in dealing with rape kit backlogs, has been enlisted to help in the process.

Memphis is not the only place where sexual assault kit backlogs are an issue. Colorado, Illinois and Texas already have passed laws that mandate a statewide accounting of untested rape kits. Detroit announced in March that it had identified 100 serial rapists from its testing of backlogged sexual assault kits.

According to statistics provided by the city of Memphis, more than 4,000 kits have been tested for antibody levels and 30 have been examined for DNA. Another 5,500 kits remain untested, the statistics show.

More than 90 investigations have been opened, and 16 suspects who have been identified have been found to be previously convicted. The statistics also show that 14 indictments have been issued against people or DNA profiles, and two cases have passed the statute of limitations.

More than $6.5 million is needed to test all of the kits, and it could take five years for all of them to get tested, city officials say. The city currently has $2 million that pays for testing through early 2015, and it is seeking donations and grants to help pay for all of the testing.

“We’re committed to this process in every way,” Memphis Mayor A C Wharton Jr. said at Wednesday’s meeting. “For people who want us to blow up and melt down for what happened in Nashville, it’s not going to happen.”

Lawmakers who opposed including $2 million in the state’s 2015 budget for testing said they first need an accurate inventory of the number of untested kits across the state before approving the money. They did pass a law requiring law enforcement agencies in Tennessee to conduct inventories of untested kits.

Lawmakers who wanted the funding have said some type of legislation needs to be passed, not only to get justice for rape victims, but also for individuals who have been falsely accused of rape and need the kits tested to be exonerated.

Sarah Tofte, director of advocacy and strategic partnerships for Joyful Heart, questioned the Legislature’s decision, saying there was enough money available. She said offenders who commit rapes in Memphis could likely have committed sexual assaults elsewhere in the state.

“The state government in my perspective didn’t step up,” said Tofte, who has praised Memphis efforts to test the backlogged kits. “This isn’t just a Memphis problem, and it’s not only up to Memphis to figure it out.”

On Wednesday, the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office said it has more than 100 untested rape kits not included in the city’s total. Sheriff Bill Oldham has told county commissioners he needs $75,000 to test the kits.

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