RICHMOND, Va. (WVEC) -- An important step for victims of sexual assault: Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed legislation Thursday that will make the collection, storage and testing of rape kits more consistent.
Senate Bill 291 and House Bill 1160 are meant to make sure any DNA evidence collected from sexual assault victims is preserved and tested, in order to help them get justice.
The legislation comes from the recommendations of a task force on the handling and backlog of the kits. 13News Now has been reporting on this significant issue for almost a year now.
Original Report: Untested Rape Kits
There's talk about "the power of the pen;" for victims like Natasha Alexenko, Thursday, a swipe of Governor Terry McAuliffe's pen restored faith in the justice system.
“What I kept hearing today is that they're taking victims into consideration,” she told 13News Now.
Natasha's story is similar to other rape victims we've heard from. She was raped and robbed at gun point back in 1993.
“I submitted to a rape kit exam because I wanted to help law enforcement find the monster who did that to me,” she recalled.
Her DNA evidence sat on a shelf in New York City collecting dust for ten years. It wasn't until 2003, when she was living in Newport News that she got the call her kit would be tested and finally matched to a perpetrator.
“During those years he was on a nationwide crime spree,” Natasha lamented. “He had crimes in seven other states. He was hurting people.”
The victim-turned-advocate says legislation like what the governor signed Thursday, would have meant the world to her back then. It creates a comprehensive procedure for the consistent handling of rape kits holding DNA evidence.
“We were able to solve the problem,” exclaimed Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, who led the taskforce on the rape or PERK kits, as they’re known in Virginia.
Our investigation revealed hundreds of rape kits were left at police departments here in Hampton Roads, never to be sent to the state lab. Now, the evidence must be sent for testing within sixty days. That is expected to double the number of kits tested each year in Virginia.
“It is our responsibility to provide certainty and ease the pain for women who are haunted by the fears that their attackers could still be out there and still could be free,” McAuliffe added.
We asked Natasha what a bill like this does for victims.
“I think that you're sending a message to victims when you have a bill of this nature you're saying 'we care, we're listening to you,'” she said.
“The survivors of these malicious crimes are trusting in us to provide a full accounting of these cases and to bring perpetrators to justice. To ensure their safety, it is vital that we have all areas of law enforcement, government, and private organizations working together. The measures signed today provide a permanent and coherent solution for that process," said Governor McAuliffe.
The legislation includes a process for survivors to request information on the status and results of the tests.
To handle the increase in tests, the new state budget includes $900,000 annually to hire six new DNA examiners. A portion of those funds will be used in the first year to outsource testing when feasible while the new staff members are trained.
Since our original investigation, millions of dollars have been appropriated to test a nationwide backlog and a social media movement took off.
An audit last year by the Virginia Department of Forensic Science discovered nearly 3,000 untested physical evidence recovery kits, or perks, in the custody of law enforcement agencies across the Commonwealth. Most were related to sexual assault and rape cases.
The governor also signed two additional measures affirming his support for the health and safety of Virginia’s women.
Senate Bill 248 enables a minor to consent to an evidence recovery examination over the objections of a parent or guardian, a critical option in cases where the adult may be the perpetrator.
House Bill 1102 facilitates collaboration between state agencies and campus law enforcement in the development of trauma-informed training to ensure that survivors of sexual assault receive the support and evidence-based treatment they need.