Editorial: New law helps right serious wrong

Augusta Chronicle

Laws guarantee our safety and rights against harm.

House Bill 282 perfectly fit the definition of a law.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp had the honor of signing that bill into law this week. It requires state law enforcement agencies to keep rape kits as evidence for up to 50 years, when the old limit was just 10.

The term "rape kit" is sickeningly familiar to most of us. When someone is suspected of being sexually assaulted, medical professionals use a container of items designed to help collect evidence of the assault from the victim. Since the first such kit was developed in the late 1970s, untold numbers of sex offenders who might have walked free instead faced richly deserved justice.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb, as one among the abundance of attorneys populating the Georgia General Assembly, is aware more sensitively than most that an attorney on either side of a case needs as much evidence as possible to prove or disprove a person's guilt. Rape kits prove to be virtually indispensable.

But they were being dispensed of - or more specifically disposed of - too early. Because rape kits could be discarded after just 10 years on an evidence-room shelf, cold cases that had a chance of being solved instead were packed permanently on ice. Justice delayed, as the saying goes, then meant justice denied.

Thankfully, that's much less likely now. The new law now requires preservation of evidence 30 years after an arrest date, or seven years from a prison sentence's completion, whichever occurs later. If there are no arrests, the kit has to be stored for 50 years.

This actually marks part two of a saga that began a few years ago.

An Atlanta Journal-Constitution probe in 2015 found more than 1,400 kits untested at Atlanta's Grady Memorial Hospital, even though victims wanted the kits handed over to police. But police didn't pick them up, and Grady kept the kits because it thought federal regulations prevented their release. That turned out to be untrue.

Concerned legislators, Holcomb among them, pushed a bipartisan bill in 2016 requiring law enforcement officials to collect rape kits within 96 hours of their completion. The bill also mandated a new report listing all analyzed kits and the ones waiting to be analyzed.

Though the bill's passage through the legislature got way too political, it passed overwhelmingly and then-Gov. Nathan Deal signed it into law, just as Gov. Kemp signed the new law Tuesday after it passed unanimously.

This new attention to rape kits raised the profile of a lot of cold cases, and that's paid off. For example: Retested DNA evidence led authorities last September to 51-year-old Christopher Charles Sanders, who now faces charges in three rape cases from 2006, 2011 and 2012. If it weren't for that first law and the resulting easing of the rape kit backlog, police might never have found a likely suspect in those crimes.

Inaccessibility to rape kits benefited no one. Now, one of Georgia's newest laws rights a grave wrong.


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