Sex assault survivor advocates push for faster DNA testing

Advocates for sex assault survivors are pushing the City of Austin to make the processing of DNA evidence a priority this budget session. Last month, the Austin Police Department temporarily closed its lab which had a backlog of 3,000 sex assault cases.

On Thursday sex assault survivor advocates held a press conference at City Hall voicing their concerns over the Austin Police Department's inability to process evidence.

"It is absolutely unacceptable. The prosecution rates are low and we have to do a better job,” said Coni Stogner SAFE Alliance.

In June, the department voluntarily closed its DNA lab after issues were identified by the Forensic Science Commission. Those issues included improper formulas used to validate the samples and a lack of staffing.

At the time of closure, the department had a backlog of 3,000 sex assault evidence kits. Through grant money, APD is able to ship those to a lab in Utah in waves of 400. All are expected be completed within the next 12 to 18 months.

Another 1,400 DNA samples remain. 700 are related to sex assault cases.

An average of 25 new sex assault cases come in per month.

"When we're talking to survivors about this process and they ask us ‘how long will this take?’ Before we could say well it could take 12 months. Now we literally have to say I don't know. It is horrible to have to say that to a survivor,” said Stogner.

Advocates want the city to make the processing of DNA evidence, specifically sex assault cases, a priority in the budget session. Mayor Pro-tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Greg Casar pledged their support.

"We have an absolute responsibility in this community to make sure to survivors of sex assault and other violent crimes to do everything possible we can to ensure those responsible for these violent acts are brought to justice as swiftly as possible,” said Tovo.

Assistant Chief Troy Gay says an audit from the Major City Chiefs Forensics Association recommended an additional seven lab technicians. The department is currently doing an overhaul in management and re-training current staff.

"We realize cases can't just sit on the shelf is that we as an agency owe it to all our victims especially sex assault cases to work these cases to the fullest,” said Gay.

For sex assault survivor Delma Catalina Limones, the preservation of DNA evidence brought her healing. "I cannot imagine my life if I had not spoken out. Winning my case gave me the strength and closure to live my life again."

The APD lab is expected to re-open in six months.

Read the Texas Forensic Science Commission final audit of APD’s DNA lab here.