Originally in Mountain Xpress

June 26, 2019

N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein, answering questions during a June 24 press conference at Asheville’s U.S. Cellular Center, couldn’t pin down the cause behind the state’s backlog of roughly 15,000 untested sexual assault evidence kits — the most of any state in the country, as estimated by his office. “There are a lot of explanations, and frankly, none of them are satisfactory,” he said.

Instead, Stein and his colleagues in local law enforcement focused on their efforts to resolve the backlog and ensure such a failure does not happen again. Both Asheville and Buncombe County authorities shared their progress in submitting their collections of rape kits to DNA testing.

James Baumstark, deputy chief of the Asheville Police Department, declared that all of the backlogged kits in his department’s possession — nearly 600 in all — had been reviewed, with 414 already sent in for testing. He said that it had taken five detectives to complete the project and noted that testing was “only one step in a complex process” to bring criminals to justice.

In Buncombe County, Sheriff Quentin Miller said that his office was evaluating and prioritizing a backlog of 201 untested kits. Survivors looking for updates on their cases, he added, can call a newly established Sheriff’s Office hotline at 828-250-6922 or receive information through the local nonprofit Our VOICE at 828-255-7576.

Moving forward, Stein said, the state had created a tracking system for all sexual assault kits to ensure better transparency and accountability for survivors. He also pointed out that the General Assembly is currently considering the Standing Up for Rape Victims Act of 2019, which would require all law enforcement agencies to submit kits for testing within 45 days of receipt.

However, Stein acknowledged one major barrier to clearing North Carolina’s current backlog: money. Each kit costs roughly $700 to process, with a total estimated cost of $9 million to $10 million to test them all. The state House and Senate have only allocated $6 million and $3 million for rape kit testing, respectively, in their proposed budgets, although Stein noted that the state crime lab had obtained $3 million in grant funding to outsource some of the work. 

“Testing these kits will undoubtedly put more criminals behind bars, where they will not be able to hurt anyone else,” Stein emphasized. “When we test these kits, we solve crimes.”

And Robin Sersland, interim executive director of Our VOICE, called for the community as a whole to bolster survivors of sexual assault. “We ask that you believe survivors, that you offer them your time and support and patience as they work through their own unique process of healing,” she said. “Please be there for them.”