Originally in Statesville Record & Landmark

September 7, 2018

Editor’s note: N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein recently sat down for an interview with the Record & Landmark during a visit to Statesville. This is the last of a three-part interview with reporter Shawn Taylor. Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

At least 15,160 sexual assault kits that have never been tested are sitting in police departments across the state.

A state audit earlier this year found that of those, 189 are in Iredell County. The kits contain DNA and other potential evidence in sexual assault cases.

It costs $700 to test a single kit, so many of these lower-priority kits have been ignored.

In a recent interview at Record & Landmark, N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein lamented the fact that the General Assembly did not give his office enough money to begin going through the backlog.

He also criticized Republican leaders for slashing his office’s budget last year and claimed that President Donald Trump’s behavior while in office is “not commendable” for any elected official.

The state audit found some 15,000 untested rape kits in the state.

Josh Stein: Very troubling.

There are nearly 190 here in Iredell County. Where are you in testing them? What’s next?

We’re moving forward but we need to move forward more quickly. So I asked the Legislature to create a tracking system of every sexual assault kit.

When you send a package by UPS or FedEx, you know exactly where it is because of a barcode. There’s no reason why we can’t use the same technology on sexual assault kits.

By having a tracking system we won’t ever have to do a cumbersome inventory like we did last year that took months and months for us to come up with the 15,000. We’ll just be able to run a report and know exactly how many kits there are and exactly where they are in the process.

So that was one recommendation and the Legislature took me up on that.

Another was to create a select committee to look at how to make the tracking process work well and to look at the 15,000 untested kits to develop a prioritization strategy for analyzing those kits. That committee is in process. We’ve met twice already.

But the third ask I had of the Legislature was to start the outsourcing of the 15,000 kits and they provided no resources in their last budget, much to my great disappointment. I’d asked for $2 million so that we could start it. To do all 15,000 would cost $10 million.

So we’re going to keep pushing, I’m going to keep asking the Legislature to fund the outsourcing of these kits.

Without that funding it’s up to local department to choose to pay for them to be tested?

Yes.

Also, the Legislature gave us like $250,000, which is a standard appropriation. It’s $700 a kit. It’s just not that much. That’s why we asked for $2 million. We thought, ‘Look, let’s get a good jump on this problem. Let’s not lose another year without testing the kits.’

Unfortunately, we weren’t successful.

Do you think every kit needs to be tested?

Some kits should not be tested and, in fact, federal regulations prohibit it. If the victim never presses charges and is quote-unquote anonymous, then the law enforcement is directed not to test them.

There are other kits where the defendant admitted guilt and went to prison, so there’s no point to test it.

My sense is the vast majority need to be tested.

You’ve sued President Donald Trump’s administration multiple times. Most recently, you’ve gone after the Environmental Protection Agency.

Basically they are saying unless every piece of data in a scientific study, even one that is a double-blind survey, which is the pinnacle of scientific trustworthiness, if there is any data which is confidential, it can’t be used. Well a lot of scientific data that helps the EPA and others to know what rules to set are based on people’s health outcomes. Well, people’s health by law has to be confidential in those studies.

So what they are trying to do is they are trying to create a situation where the EPA cannot use certain studies in their work.

That’s what they are trying to do and it’s junk, it’s deceptive and it puts the public’s health at risk. That’s why I oppose it.

Do states have a role to be a check on federal power? How realistic is it that you will change what Trump is able to

We’ve won on a number of claims as it is. But the way that I look at my job is to protect the people of North Carolina. And that includes keeping them safe from crime; it means protecting their health and protecting their opportunity to advance however they most wish.

And I do that whether it’s some company that’s taking people’s hard-earned money through deceptive practices or if it’s the federal government that is trying to put in some regulation that is going to result in people in North Carolina dying. I will stand up for the people of North Carolina every time, I don’t care who is on the other side.

What is your opinion of the direction Trump is taking the country?

The state Department of Justice is considering whether "North Carolinians are being harmed ..."

I don’t think he is pursuing policies or acting in a way that is making people’s lives better. I think that his negative way of communicating and use of taunts and threats and misrepresentations is not commendable in an elected official. It’s not commendable in any leader but particularly so for our president.

You claimed budget cuts to your office in 2017 would have an impact on public safety. Has that come to pass?

Well, the $10 million budget cut resulted in me losing 45 positions in the Department of Justice. These included lawyers who specialized in handling criminal appeals of child sex offenders, lawyers specialized in keeping drinking water clean, lawyers experienced in ensuring the children get the child support they are entitled to under the law.

We continue to do the work we are charged with and do it as well as we possibly can. But if you lose nearly 10 percent of your lawyers, you not only lose their experience, it means that everyone else is overstressed. There’s no getting around it.

An unlimited amount of resources would make any department run better.

Yeah, but this was not a cut because we were a bloated department that had too many people. There was never a single hearing on what the workload was of the Department of Justice. In fact, it was not in either the House budget or the Senate budget. It was only put forward in the conference report the night before it was going to be voted on.

Do you think that would have happened if you were a Republican instead of a Democrat?

I don’t think so.

You’re talking about added stress and work for lawyers who remain. Does that add to any irreparable harm or is it just slowing things down?

We also lost some very talented lawyers who just threw their hands up and said, ‘I can make a lot more money in the private sector. I don’t need to deal with all of this.’

So it was a huge setback but it was a year ago and over the past year we’ve managed to reorient the department and get us back on solid ground and get the work were charged with as best as we possibly can and I think we’re doing a very good job of it