Valerie Neumann’s 21st birthday started out at a bowling alley in Erlanger, Ky. A friend of a friend bought her a celebratory drink… and then another, and then another. Later that night, as Neumann tells the story, she got sick and passed out. She woke up to find that acquaintance touching her. He did not stop when she told him no.
“When I woke up the next morning, my panties and the sweatpants were down around my ankles and my bra was undone,” Neumann told CBS in 2009. She immediately reported the rape — but three years later, there was still no arrest. The suspect’s attorney claimed he and Neumann never had sex, even though Neumann’s exam found “evidence of forced sexual penetration.” Her examiners completed a rape kit, taking samples of fluids and clothing to gather DNA evidence. The suspect provided a sample. But because Neumann’s rape kit was never tested, there is no confirmation of the suspect’s crime. He continued to walk free.
Authorities told Neumann that they couldn’t test her kit because it was too expensive, according to RAINN, where Neumann is now part of the speaker’s bureau. When CBS asked about it, prosecutors claimed that Neumann’s case was too “unwinnable” in court to warrant testing. Neumann came away, she said, feeling that “they didn’t do their job to protect me and to protect everyone else.”
To date, there are more than 400,000 untested rape kits across the country ... It didn’t happen overnight. The lack of public resources in the face of rapidly progressing forensic science, combined with the challenges of investigating sexual assault crimes, has led to piles of untested biological evidence in cities around the country.
In 2009 and 2010, this all came to a head when investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice, human rights organizations and local advocates outed police departments for sitting on hundreds of thousands of untested kits. Cities across the country found themselves labeled with horrifying numbers. Los Angeles had a backlog of 12,669 untested kits. Detroit discovered 10,000. In Illinois, Human Rights Watch found that about 80 percent of rape kits were never examined. In Memphis, about 8,000 untested kits still molder in storage.
There were 16,000 in Houston, a city that had just elected its second female and first openly gay mayor, Annise Parker. Empowered by stats from the Justice Department and bits of knowledge gleaned from Law & Order: SVU, residents began demanding that police and political leaders deal with the untested kits, some them decades old, that were sitting idly in the property room of Houston’s police department. ...
Parker decided to take on the challenge. Now, as she begins her third and final term, Houston touts itself as one of the few cities in the country to have adequately met — and eliminated — its backlog of untested kits. “My hope is other cities around the state can learn from our approach,” Parker said at a recent news conference.
Cities well beyond Texas should also take notice. How, exactly, was Houston able to sort through thousands of untested kits, more of which came in every day?
From my new story in Next City. This is the first of an ongoing examination of the unexpectedly progressive momentum in Houston, changing the landscape of a city whose name has long evoked big oil and minimal urban planning.