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More accusers against Paul Pressler

So often the case when there is one accusation of abuse against a powerful person, more victims come forward with their own stories.

The list of men accusing a former Texas state judge and leading figure of the Southern Baptist Convention of sexual misconduct continues to grow.

In separate court affidavits filed this month, two men say Paul Pressler molested or solicited them for sex in a pair of incidents that span nearly 40 years. Those accusations were filed as part of a lawsuit filed last year by another man who says he was regularly raped by Pressler.

Pressler’s newest accusers are another former member of a church youth group and a lawyer who worked for Pressler’s former law firm until 2017.

Toby Twining, 59, now a New York musician, was a teenager in 1977 when he says Pressler grabbed his penis in a sauna at River Oaks Country Club, according to an affidavit filed in federal court. At that time, Pressler was a youth pastor at Bethel Church in Houston; he was ousted from that position in 1978 after church officials received information about “an alleged incident,” according to a letter introduced into the court file.

Brooks Schott, 27, now a lawyer in Washington state, says in an affidavit that he resigned his position at Pressler’s former law firm after Pressler in 2016 invited Schott to get into a hot tub with him naked. He also accuses Jared Woodfill, Pressler’s longtime law partner and the head of the Harris County Republican Party until 2014, of failing to prevent Pressler’s sexual advances toward him and others, which Schott says were well-known among the firm, the documents state.

Documents recently made public show that in 2004, Pressler agreed to pay $450,000 to another former youth group member for physical assault. That man, Duane Rollins, filed a new suit last year in which he demands more than $1 million for decades of alleged rapes that a psychiatrist recently confirmed had been suppressed from Rollins’ memory. Rollins also claims the trauma pushed him to the drugs and alcohol that resulted in multiple prison sentences.

[…]

Brooks Schott states in the documents that he met Pressler in 2016, after Schott was hired as a lawyer at the firm Pressler co-founded with Woodfill.

Schott says he was invited to lunch by Pressler in December 2016. He arrived at Pressler’s home, he says, where he was greeted by Pressler, who was not wearing pants. After dressing, Pressler gave Schott a tour of his office and mentioned a 10-person hot tub at his ranch.

“Pressler then told me that ‘when the ladies are not around, us boys all go in the hot tub completely naked,’ ” Schott’s affidavit states. “He then invited me to go hot tubbing with him at his ranch. This invitation was clearly made in anticipation that I would engage in sexual activity.”

Upon returning to the firm, Schott said an office manager told him that Pressler had previously solicited young men at the firm. Schott then complained to Woodfill, according to emails that were filed with his affidavit.

“If (the office manager) knew of Pressler’s past inappropriate sexual behavior, I find it hard to believe that you did not know about it,” he wrote in a Dec. 9, 2016 email to Woodfill, court records show.

Woodfill responded that Pressler was no longer his law partner and that “this 85-year-old man has never made any inappropriate comments or actions toward me or any one I know of,” court records show. In a subsequent email, Woodfill said that the conduct Schott described “is unacceptable” and said he would address it with Pressler.

In an email on Thursday, Woodfill responded to Schott’s assertion, writing that “the person described in Mr. Schott’s affidavit doesn’t match up with the Judge Pressler I know” and that Pressler “has not been associated with my law firm for over a decade.”

See here and here for the background. Copies of the affidavits are embedded in the story. And remember, when he’s not defending the character of Paul Pressler, Jared Woodfill is busy fighting to take away spousal benefits from LGBT city employees because he thinks gay people are icky and perverted. Stay tuned, I’m sure there will be more to this story.

More on the Pressler lawsuit

The Chron adds some details to the lawsuit against former State Representative and Judge Paul Pressler, who has been accused by Duane Rollins of long-term sexual abuse.

Rollins worked in 2003 and 2004 as a personal assistant to Pressler and attended the same church as Pressler beginning as a teenager, according to court documents. Those documents include two letters ostensibly written by Pressler in 2000 and 2002 trying to gain Rollins’ release from prison.

The suit, a revised version of which was filed Dec. 14, seeks more than $1 million in damages.

Also named as defendants are Jared Woodfill, Pressler’s former law partner and former head of the Republican Party in Harris County; the First Baptist Church of Houston; the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth and its president, Paige Patterson; and Pressler’s wife, Nancy.

The suit claims the other defendants knew or should have known about the alleged assaults and could have stopped them.

Pressler has categorically denied all of the allegations in court filings, as did the other defendants, and his lawyer filed a motion Thursday afternoon asking that the case be thrown out of court.

[…]

It’s not the first time Rollins has sued Pressler – he filed suit in July 2004 with his mother, Margaret Duryea, but the suit was dismissed two months later after an apparent settlement was reached, according to records with the Dallas County District Clerk’s Office and Harris County courts.

The case file containing the 2004 lawsuit has since been destroyed by Dallas County, as allowed under state law. But Rollins’ attorney, Daniel Shea, who also represented him in Dallas, provided a copy of the 2004 lawsuit, which accuses Pressler of physically assaulting Rollins during a trip to Dallas in November 2003.

In August 2016, Rollins filed a notice of intent to file a lawsuit against Pressler in Harris County to force him to set aside funds to pay out the remaining balance of the 2004 settlement agreement through 2029. That’s when the payments are set to end, according to court documents.

Neither Woodfill, who represented Pressler in 2004, nor Shea would provide the Chronicle a copy of the settlement agreement. But the court documents filed in 2016 link the settlement directly to the 2004 lawsuit.

The notice seeks to question Pressler under oath about the settlement agreement.

[…]

Shea is perhaps best known for suing a Harris County judge who posted the Ten Commandments in a courtroom, and for attempting to sue the Pope in federal court in 2005 over sexual abuse of minors by priests.

Shea also represented some plaintiffs in Massachusetts when sexual abuse scandals plagued the Boston and Worcester Archdioceses in the early 2000s.

Shea has had a rocky history in Texas. His law license was suspended in 2013 for 18 months for professional misconduct and was reinstated in October 2014, though he remained on probation until March 2017, according to the State Bar of Texas website. A state bar disciplinary report published in the Texas Bar Journal said he entered into a contract with a client that was unfair and unreasonable, without the client’s written consent to the terms. He was ordered to pay more than $38,000 in restitution to the client.

See here for the background. The defense is arguing that the statute of limitations renders this action moot. There will be a hearing on January 17, and there is also a motion to transfer the case to Tarrant County. Assuming this doesn’t get kicked, it’s going to be quite fascinating to watch.

(On a side note, Paul Pressler gave $5000 to the anti-HERO campaign. Gotta beware of those predators, you know.)

The Paul Pressler lawsuit

Here‘s a thing to keep an eye on.

A former Texas state judge and lawmaker has been accused of sexually abusing a young man for several decades starting when the boy was just 14, according to a lawsuit filed in October in Harris County.

The lawsuit alleges that Paul Pressler, a former justice on the 14th Court of Appeals who served in the Texas state house from 1957–59, sexually assaulted Duane Rollins, his former bible study student, several times per month over a period of years. According to the filing, the abuse started in the late 1970s and continued less frequently after Rollins left Houston for college in 1983.

In a November court filing, Pressler “generally and categorically [denied] each and every allegation” in Rollins’ petition.

The abuse, which consisted of anal penetration, took place in Pressler’s master bedroom study, the suit alleges. According to the lawsuit, Pressler told Rollins he was “special” and that the sexual contact was their God-sanctioned secret.

Pressler is a leading figure on the religious right in Texas and was a key player in the “conservative resurgence” of Southern Baptism, a movement in the 1970s and 1980s that aimed to oust liberals and moderates from the church’s organizational structure. Pressler’s wife Nancy, his former law partner Jared Woodfill, Woodfill Law Firm, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and First Baptist Church of Houston are also named as defendants in the suit.

Rollins seeks damages of over $1 million.

It’s ugly stuff. The original reporting was in the Quorum Report, which has a few more details:

Rollins regularly saw Patterson and Pressler. At one point, the three travelled abroad together, the suit says.

Following the trip, Rollins was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Houston, leading to a string of felonies and ultimately back to prison. He was finally released in November of 2015 after telling a psychologist about being molested.

Rollins sought professional help and a lawyer, Daniel Shea of Houston.

A psychiatric evaluation of Rollins provided in the filing revealed he suffered from undiagnosed Posttraumatic Stress Disorder as a result of being molested.

The petition also questions the dogmas and beliefs of Pressler, Rev. Patterson and others with the goal of discrediting the theology of the resurgence, which advocates a literal interpretation of Scripture within the SBC, as a smokescreen for “one of the most pernicious philosophical and theological dogmas afoot in this country. It is known as ‘Calvinism’,” the case reads.

The lawsuit is here.

Letters from Judge Pressler vouching for the plaintiff are here and here.

The psychiatric evaluation of the plaintiff can be downloaded here.

Keep an eye on this one, I have a feeling it’s going to be big.

Lawsuit filed over untested rape kits

This could be a big deal.

A former Houston woman is suing the City of Houston and a long list of current and former mayors and police chiefs for failing to investigate a backlog of more than 6,000 untested rape kits, and not identifying her attacker as a man who had been in a national police database for decades.

In one of several cases brought by victims against officials around the country in recent years, the victim of a 2011 sexual assault in Houston claims in a federal civil rights lawsuit this week that her perpetrator could have been apprehended and prosecuted for earlier crimes if officials had kept on top of the massive backlog of DNA samples in the city’s possession.

DeJenay Beckwith, 35, who now lives in Milam County, contends city officials failed to pursue a serial offender in her case, or investigate rape kits for other victims, because they don’t take women or child victims seriously. She is seeking damages, saying city officials violated her rights to due process and equal protection, and officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

[…]

Houston tackled the backlog of rape kits in early 2013 under former Mayor Annise Parker and ex-Chief Charles McClelland, drawing on $4 million in federal grants to outsource DNA testing with private forensic labs. Parker led the initiative to remove the crime lab from HPD management in April 2014 – although it remains in the HPD headquarters building – after the creation of an independent city-funded lab now overseen by civilian forensic experts.

According to court documents, Beckwith met her assailant on April 2, 2011, when he pretended to be a mechanic and offered to fix her broken down car. He asked to come inside her Southwest Houston home for a glass of water.

According to the lawsuit, he proceeded to throw her to the floor, strike her repeatedly and rape her. She chased him on foot, and a neighbor joined the chase, but he escaped in his car.

A rape kit taken at Memorial Hermann Southwest as a result of her police report was taken to the city’s crime lab.

Beckwith’s lawyers say the kit went untested for five years. During that time, she got one phone call from a detective who wanted to know what she was doing wandering on Bissonnet when she met her assailant, implying she was a prostitute and saying, “These things happen.”

The detective discouraged her from filing a report, telling her it was unlikely the suspect would be caught, according to the lawsuit.

She next heard from Houston police in 2016, when they contacted her to say they tested the DNA and they had a suspect. She later learned the man’s name was David Lee Cooper. Cooper had prior sexual assault convictions, including one from 2002 involving minor child. His DNA had been in the Combined DNA Index System, known as CODIS and managed by the FBI, since 1991.

The details of what happened to Ms. Beckwith are awful and troubling, and if the account of what the detective told her is accurate, I hope he’s no longer in that job. It’s too late to do anything to help Ms. Beckwith in any meaningful way, but we sure can get to the bottom of why this all happened and take steps to make sure it never happens again. The Press and ThinkProgress have more.

Dan Patrick doesn’t care about sexual assault

Such a moral exemplar you are, Danno.

Amid a wave of reports of women alleging Donald Trump kissed or groped them without their consent, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrickmaintained Thursday that the Republican presidential nominee has effectively pushed the issue behind him.

Patrick, who is Texas Chairman for Trump’s presidential campaign, initially addressed the scandal currently dominating the presidential campaign Wednesday to Time Warner Cable News’ Capital Tonight.

“This story is kind of in the rear-view mirror now,” Patrick said, referring to an 11-year-old tape published by the Washington Post that showed Trump bragging about kissing and groping women without their consent.

As Capital Tonight aired the segment Wednesday evening, several news outlets published reports featuring women accusing Trump of activities similar to what he talked about doing in the 2005 video. First, The New York Times published a story in which two women accused Trump of touching them inappropriately.

“He was like an octopus,”  Jessica Leeds, one of the women, told the Times. “His hands were everywhere.”

The Palm Beach Post also published a story about a local woman who said she was groped by Trump 13 years ago. People Magazine published a story in which a reporter accused Trump of “forcing his tongue” down her throat.

Trump denied the allegations and is reportedly considering filing a lawsuit. On Twitter, he said: “The phony story in the failing @nytimes is a TOTAL FABRICATION. Written by same people as last discredited story on women. WATCH!”

In a statement to The Texas Tribune, spokesman Allen Blakemore said Patrick continues to believe voters see the Trump tape story “through the rear view mirror.”

“As far as new allegations published in the New York Times, the Lieutenant Governor thinks the voters will decide that they are far more concerned about the direction of the Supreme Court, the economy and national security than a decades old tawdry tabloid story published in a newspaper that has already endorsed Mrs. Clinton,” Blakemore said.

Patrick is such a coward, he can’t even bring himself to address the assault allegations. We have moved on from the “grab her by the pussy” tape, Dan. There’s much worse out there now, and I’ll bet there’s still more to come. Try to keep up. Of course, none of Trump’s racism or anti-Semitism or palling around with Vladimir Putin have bothered Dan Patrick so far, so I suppose this should be no mystery. In the meantime, Nick Anderson’s cartoon says it all. This needs to be pointed out repeatedly when Patrick’s potty bill is being debated in the Senate.

“Grab her by the p—-“

Donald Trump, ladies and gentlemen:

Donald Trump bragged in vulgar terms about kissing, groping and trying to have sex with women during a 2005 conversation caught on a hot microphone, saying that “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” according to a video obtained by The Washington Post.

The video captures Trump talking with Billy Bush, then of “Access Hollywood,” on a bus with the show’s name written across the side. They were arriving on the set of “Days of Our Lives” to tape a segment about Trump’s cameo on the soap opera.

The tape includes audio of Bush and Trump talking inside the bus, as well as audio and video once they emerge from it to begin shooting the segment.

In that audio, Trump discusses a failed attempt to seduce a woman, whose full name is not given in the video.

“I moved on her, and I failed. I’ll admit it,” Trump is heard saying. It was unclear when the events he was describing took place. The tape was recorded several months after he married his third wife, Melania.

“Whoa,” another voice said.

“I did try and f— her. She was married,” Trump says.

Trump continues: “And I moved on her very heavily. In fact, I took her out furniture shopping. She wanted to get some furniture. I said, ‘I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture.’”

“I moved on her like a bitch, but I couldn’t get there. And she was married,” Trump says. “Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything. She’s totally changed her look.”

At that point in the audio, Trump and Bush appear to notice Arianne Zucker, the actress who is waiting to escort them into the soap-opera set.

“Your girl’s hot as s—, in the purple,” says Bush, who’s now a co-host of NBC’s “Today” show.

“Whoa!” Trump says. “Whoa!”

“I’ve got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her,” Trump says. “You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

“And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”

“Whatever you want,” says another voice, apparently Bush’s.

“Grab them by the p—y,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”

I don’t have any snark to bring for this. It’s hardly a surprise, given all we know about Donald Trump, though it’s still shocking in a way that I didn’t think I could still be shocked. The coordinated national Republican response has been rolled out, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot of it over the next thirty-something days.

And sure enough, Dan Patrick was quick to “condemn” Trump for what he said. Of course, there’s literally nothing Trump could say or do that would persuade Dan Patrick that Donald Trump is manifestly unqualified and incapable of being President, so take it for what it’s worth. That leaves Ted Cruz, John Cornyn, Greg Abbott, Ken Paxton, George P. Bush, Sid Miller, and every other Texas Republican that has endorsed and worked to help elect Donald Trump to let us know what they have to say for themselves. Because as with Patrick, what they have to say about it will say a lot about themselves as well.

UPDATE: What Josh Marshall says.

Legislation to ban the jailing of rape victims proposed

Hard to argue with, I must say.

DA Devon Anderson

The controversial jailing of a rape victim to ensure her testimony could lead to a new state law protecting victims’ rights to an appointed attorney.

State Sen. Joan Huffman is joining with Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson and Sheriff Ron Hickman to push for new legislation to protect witnesses facing jail time through a legal mechanism known as an attachment order, or witness attachment.

The announcement Friday came on the heels of a firestorm after a mentally ill rape victim filed a lawsuit last month over being detained in the Harris County jail for almost a month while waiting to testify against her attacker.

[…]

“The process of attachment is a rarely used but extremely vital tool for attorneys to ensure the testimony of a witness,” said Huffman, R-Houston. “It should only be used when there is no other way to hear testimony that is critical to public safety or in the best interest of the public.”

Huffman said what happened to the rape victim was “distressing” and she is looking at a wide swath of possible changes, mostly for large jurisdictions in Texas.

In addition to requiring judges to appoint counsel, Huffman said she is looking at requirements that office holders, or their designees, sign off on the order. There could also be a requirement to renew the order every 72 hours.

“I envision it almost like the special protections we have in the juvenile system, like making sure they have counsel and someone is keeping tabs on them,” she said. “And that way everybody knows what’s going on and everybody is on the same page.”

She said smaller jurisdictions would probably be exempt, since it would be unlikely that a witness in jail in a small rural county would “fall through the cracks.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. It’s hard to argue with the intent of such a bill, but one could easily argue that this should never have happened here without DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman’s knowledge and consent, and that it happened is more a failure of common sense and office management than anything else. That said, if it takes a law to ensure that every office has that kind of procedure in place, then so be it. I would argue that small counties should not be exempted from it, as informing the DA and Sheriff is hardly an imposition, and ensuring they are informed would also ensure they are accountable. So kudos to Sen. Huffman for proposing this, but forgive me my exasperation that she had to propose it.

Jailed rape victim’s lawyer calls for special prosecutor

To investigate the actions of the DA’s office that led to her incarceration.

DA Devon Anderson

Prosecutors broke the law when they jailed a rape victim in order to secure her testimony against her attacker, the woman’s attorney claimed Monday in a letter to Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson.

Attorney Sean Buckley said he believes prosecutors illegally obtained a court order to confine his client in the Harris County Jail last December, committing the crime of official oppression.

He called on Anderson to appoint a “special prosecutor” to investigate the matter.

“Reasonable minds cannot disagree that I have made more than a colorable claim that your employees engaged in the Class A misdemeanor offense of Official Oppression in their callous and deliberate mistreatment of my client,” Buckley stated in the letter. “This is an exceedingly serious matter on multiple levels that clearly deserves a full, fair and independent investigation by a neutral and detached prosecutor with no ties to your office.”

Anderson countered Monday that her office didn’t break any laws.

“There is no reason to believe that anyone in this situation – the prosecutor or the judge – believed that what they were doing was unauthorized by the law,” Anderson said at a Monday press conference. “No crime was committed. I will not recuse off this case.”

She apologized to the victim, reiterating that prosecutors believed it was the only option at the time.

“I would say something to (the victim), that I’m very sorry about how all of this played out,” she said. “And the last thing that we ever want to do is cause further distress, further trauma to a victim.”

[…]

The woman, 25, had agreed to testify against her attacker, Keith Hendricks, but had a mental collapse on the witness stand in December. She was found walking in traffic outside the criminal courthouse and was committed to a psychiatric ward at St. Joseph Medical Center, according to the lawsuit. The judge then delayed the trial until January.

Buckley believes his client was held at St. Joseph through a valid mental health warrant.

“I have no complaint about that,” he said. “We agree she needed to be hospitalized for her mental health condition.”

But prosecutors, he said, also used an improper court order – issued and signed by the judge on the day of the woman’s December testimony – to take the woman into custody following her discharge from St. Joseph.

That order was obtained illegally, Buckley said. According to Texas law, an attachment order can be obtained only if the witness resides in the county or has been served with a subpoena and failed to appear – none of which applied to his client, he said.

“My request for an outside investigation is directed specifically at the allegation that prosecutors broke the law when they did this,” he said.

Court records show that a subpoena was issued for the woman in October, but Buckley said it was never served and was not in effect at the time of trial two months later. Furthermore, he asserted that the original subpoena was defective because it had an incorrect address for his client.

“My position is that no prosecutor could ever conclude that the attachment order used against my client was lawful,” he said. “It’s obvious that this order violates the law.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Normally with this kind of dispute over the facts of a case, you’d let the jury sort it out. Here it means that there won’t be a special prosecutor appointed, unless DA Anderson comes under enough pressure that she relents and appoints one. “Pressure” in this case means political pressure, and so far I haven’t seen much involvement from other officeholders, including Commissioners Court. If and when that happens, it will be a lot harder for Anderson to hold out. The Press has more.

More on the jailed rape victim

The Chron pens a harsh editorial.

DA Devon Anderson

Although a spokesman for the district attorney’s office has admitted this miscarriage of justice should never have happened, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson defends the prosecutor involved in the case. She says the prosecutor tried to find a suitable place for the sexual assault survivor to stay after her breakdown and even paid for a night in a hotel out of his own pocket. Calling it “an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation,” the DA said there were “no apparent alternatives” that would ensure the victim’s safety and that she also would appear to testify. Coming from a district attorney who presents herself as a champion of crime victims, that’s mighty hard to swallow. Throwing a mentally ill rape victim into jail because there’s supposedly no other place for her to go should shock the conscience of every citizen of Harris County.

[…]

Voters will pass final judgment on Anderson’s handling of this matter. With the district attorney up for re-election in November, the incident already has become a political issue.

Meanwhile, we call upon our elected leadership to ask the U.S. Justice Department for a federal investigation of this case. The DA and the sheriff have offered their own explanations, but an independent inquiry is absolutely essential.

We also urge Harris County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners Jack Cagle, Gene Locke, Jack Morman and Steve Radack to take the time to read the lawsuit the victim’s lawyer filed. It’s a frightening document outlining an unimaginable perversion of justice. We hope they lose sleep thinking over what they need to do about it.

See here and here for the background. We absolutely should be hearing more from Judge Emmett and Commissioners Court – including Sen. Ellis – on this. Do they support a federal investigation into what happened? We need to know.

and yes, this is a campaign issue.

District attorney candidate Kim Ogg on Tuesday again pushed for reform in the treatment of crime victims, criticizing the controversial jailing of a rape victim by Harris County prosecutors to ensure the woman would testify in court.

Ogg said the district attorney’s office could improve how victims are detained if prosecutors are worried witnesses might fail to show up in court. She also suggested the creation of a new division in the district attorney’s office that would be responsible for prosecuting people who commit sex crimes.

“I will never put a crime victim in jail to secure a conviction,” she said at a Tuesday press conference. “There are so many other things we can do … There is no excuse for putting this woman in jail.”

[…]

Ogg called last week for an independent investigation of the case and has now made crime victim treatment a campaign priority, saying her proposed reforms would be implemented if she is elected in November.

Sheriff candidate Ed Gonzalez has also been speaking out about this. You may say, we shouldn’t politicize this. I say District Attorney and Sheriff are political offices for a reason, and it is ultimately on the voters to decide how and when to hold the people who serve in those offices accountable when stuff like this happens. DA Anderson and Sheriff Hickman have given their responses to what happened. We get to decide how we feel about that. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

Falkenberg talks to DA Anderson about jailed rape victim

Worth reading, as you would expect. I’m going to quote from the conclusion:

DA Devon Anderson

[Assistant DA Nick] Socias appeared to have diligently tried to help, but he seemed to be trying alone. Anderson’s office said she wasn’t informed about the situation until near the end of trial.

She should have been involved from the start. The sheriff as well. When I asked, Anderson couldn’t think of a single thing the prosecutor could have done better. One is glaringly obvious: ask for help.

In the end, the victim testified, and her bravery helped get a serial rapist off the street.

But the cost to the victim was too high, something Anderson said “we regret very much.”

“We’ve just been crushed by this,” she told me.

I believe her. But a young rape victim has been destroyed by this. It’s not acceptable to say that was unavoidable.

See here for the background, and do read the whole thing. I don’t think Devon Anderson has been a terrible DA. She has done, or at least tried to do, some good things, from better handling of marijuana cases to not being bulldozed by politics in the Planned Parenthood investigation. She’s a clear step up from Chuck Rosenthal. But this case demonstrates an appalling lack of oversight within her office. There’s just no way that an ADA should have been able to make the decision to hold a crime victim, let along a rape victim, in jail without the full knowledge and consent of the DA and the Sheriff. Maybe they would have signed off on it and maybe they would have insisted on finding another answer. Maybe if they had signed off on it there would have been better management of the process that could have avoided the terrible things that happened to the victim while she was inside. Whatever the case, the fact that it did happen without them knowing about it is a problem. That Anderson didn’t see that on her own is an even bigger problem.

Why would you even think to put a rape victim in jail?

I am outraged.

The 25-year-old rape victim, frightened and long-suffering from mental illness, agreed in December to testify against the Houston man who brutally assaulted her in 2013.

She hoped to put him behind bars for life.

But that decision landed her in the Harris County jail for more than a month over the Christmas holiday – terrified, helpless and hopeless, according to a federal lawsuit filed this week in Houston.

The woman, diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, had a mental breakdown on the witness stand and then was jailed by Harris County prosecutors who feared she wouldn’t come back to court.

“They didn’t care. They got what they wanted,” the woman’s mother said Wednesday about the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “She was collateral damage and they didn’t care what happened to her.”

News about the case shocked Houston’s defense attorneys and advocates for rape victims.

“That is beyond ludicrous,” said Lavinia Masters, a sexual assault victims advocate. “I’m amazed that a judge would allow that. You’re further victimizing a victim.”

District Attorney Devon Anderson said the woman, who was homeless when she was raped, was going through a “life-threatening mental health crisis” and told prosecutors she was not going to return to testify.

“If nothing was done to prevent the victim from leaving Harris County in the middle of trial, a serial rapist would have gone free – and her life would have been at risk while homeless on the street,” Anderson said in a video statement. “This was an extraordinarily difficult and unusual situation. There were no apparent alternatives that would ensure both the victim’s safety and her appearance in trial.”

She defended the prosecutor named in the lawsuit, Nicholas Socias, and said any claim that her office does not support crime victims is “outrageous.”

[…]

Jailing a witness to ensure they testify is an unusual move in Harris County, especially when the witness is not also facing criminal charges. Over the past two decades, there have been a smattering of published accounts of rape victims being jailed across the country.

Officials with the Houston Area Women’s Center said respecting the dignity of survivors and providing full support are paramount.

“We have no direct knowledge of this particular case, but are concerned that sexual assault is already under-reported and that this may further deter survivors from coming forward,” said Rebecca White, the center’s chief executive officer.

I can’t even begin to imagine the thought process that led to the conclusion that jailing this poor women was a good idea. I mean, I know that the Harris County Jail is called the largest mental health facility in the country, but that doesn’t make it a hospital, and it doesn’t make it an acceptable place to try and treat someone who doesn’t belong in jail. This was just monumentally bad judgment, and Kim Ogg is right to call for an independent investigation of what happened. For shame.

Baylor fires Art Briles

About time.

Baylor University, in response to allegations of sexual assaults made against students — including by several football players — announced Thursday that football coach Art Briles has been suspended with intent to terminate, and Kenneth Starr will no longer serve as the president but will stay at the school.

Baylor’s actions come after the university’s board of regents received an independent report from a law firm that investigated the school’s response to sexual assault allegations.

“We were horrified by the extent of these acts of sexual violence on our campus. This investigation revealed the University’s mishandling of reports in what should have been a supportive, responsive and caring environment for students,” Richard Willis, chairman of the Baylor board of regents, said in a statement.

“The depth to which these acts occurred shocked and outraged us. Our students and their families deserve more, and we have committed our full attention to improving our processes, establishing accountability and ensuring appropriate actions are taken to support former, current and future students.”

Starr will transition into a role as chancellor and remain as a law school professor. Starr’s duties as chancellor will include external fundraising and religious liberty; he will have no operational duties at the university.

Athletic director Ian McCaw was sanctioned and placed on probation. He is working to find an interim football coach, according to Richard Willis, who is a member of Baylor’s Board of Regents.

Dr. David Garland, a former dean and professor at Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, will serve as interim president. The school said in the release that additional members of the administration and athletics program have also been dismissed but declined to identify them.

Baylor officials said in a news release that the school had hired a New York law firm to contact the NCAA about potential rules violations.

A copy of the report is here, and Baylor’s press release announcing their actions is here. I have no sympathy for Art Briles, and I hope he never coaches again anywhere. Let him spend the rest of his life regretting his actions, or lack of same. And as you read the zillions of stories on the Internet about this, please spare a thought for the victims of those uninvestigated assaults, and give the stories that spend any time contemplating what this means to the Bears’ football fortunes the contempt they deserve. If you need a little extra focus for that, or just a reminder of how we got here, go read this Texas Monthly story from last August, and this Outside the Lines report from last week. Think Progress, Texas Monthly, Martin Longman, and Deadspin’s Diana Moscovitz, who is not impressed, have more.

Another unintended consequence of tort “reform”

From Lisa Falkenberg:

At every turn in her ordeal, Laura has felt irrelevant.

The Houston mother of two says she was raped in her hospital bed by a doctor who she claims checked his phone afterward while she cried. She reported the rape to nurses who responded with cold skepticism. She had to wait nearly two years for police to collect the alleged attacker’s DNA and make an arrest.

And now, there’s this: the physician charged with assaulting her at Ben Taub hospital in November 2013, Dr. Shafeeq Sheikh, may get off scot-free in civil court.

And Texas law may entitle her to only modest compensation from Sheikh’s employer at the time of the rape, the prestigious Baylor College of Medicine.

Sheikh continued at Baylor for seven months following the incident and was then hired by Houston Methodist. A Baylor spokeswoman, citing pending litigation, has refused to allow interviews with Baylor officials or to answer questions.

The Texas Medical Board suspended Sheikh’s license following his arrest, and he has been fired from Methodist. His attorney says Sheikh looks forward to proving his innocence in court.

On Oct. 19, Laura’s attorney sued Sheikh, Baylor, Ben Taub and Harris Health, alleging, among other things, negligence.

Baylor’s lawyers have submitted to the court a proposed order to dismiss Sheikh from the case, as “mandated” by law. Baylor’s attorney, Jeff McClure, declined comment.

The law he cited, in the “tort claims” chapter of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code, says that if a governmental unit and its employee are sued, the employee shall “immediately” be dismissed.

How is a doctor at a private medical college considered a government employee?

Baylor doctors staff Ben Taub, which is a public hospital owned by Harris County.

The doctor isn’t the only one who can deploy the “government unit” shield. Baylor lawyers have successfully argued that the college itself can be construed as a government entity and is entitled to the same protections a county institution would enjoy.

In Texas, a limited government liability state, those protections are great. Baylor can argue it is immune to the claim altogether. Even if Laura’s lawyers are successful in challenging that immunity, and she is granted an award, the most a municipality can be forced to pay is $100,000.

“You can get about $300,000 if you spill coffee in your lap at McDonald’s,” says her lawyer, Mark Weycer. “But this poor lady gets raped at Ben Taub Hospital and on her best day at the courthouse, she gets $100,000.”

[…]

How can this be? The 2003 tort reforms were flawed in many ways, but did lawmakers really intend to go so far as to protect doctors who rape patients?

Absolutely not, said former state Rep. Joe Nixon, a Houston Republican who sponsored the legislation in the House. He said he was “flabbergasted” and “stunned” to hear that the Texas Supreme Court would interpret his bill to mean assault is medical malpractice.

“Any criminal activity by any medical personnel is not covered by this bill, under any circumstances,” he said.

Nixon, an attorney, cautioned in an interview Friday that he doesn’t handle medical malpractice cases, he wasn’t familiar with Laura’s case and he doesn’t comment on pending litigation. But he pushed back on the notion that his bill is responsible for the hurdles Laura faces in her civil action.

That includes the provision that allows Sheikh and Baylor to claim government protections. Perdue, the personal injury lawyer not connected to her case, said a slight change in Nixon’s 2003 bill allowed medical providers to be considered public servants.

Nixon denied that change, but when presented with the language, he argued that a doctor who rapes a patient isn’t a public servant because he’s acting outside the “course and scope” of duty.

See here and here for Falkenberg’s prior columns on this topic. It’s far more likely to me that the legislators who crafted our awful tort “reform” law didn’t give the matter much thought. I’m sure whichever lobbyists that discussed the medical-providers-as-public-servants exception with then-Rep. Nixon had perfectly reasonable-sounding justifications for it that a dedicated lackey to corporate interests like Nixon was only too happy to sign off on. And let’s be clear, it would be 100% consistent for the Supreme Court to read the law in this fashion, given how in the pocket of corporate interests they are as well. But look, there’s an easy way to fix this, and that’s for the 2017 Lege to pass a bill (*) clarifying the intent of the 2003 tort “reform” law to explicitly state that doctors like these are not “public servants” and thus are not covered by tort “reform”. Bitter partisan that I am, I think the odds of that happening are slim to none, but I’ll be happy to be proven wrong. And as long as I’m in partisan mode, running on a promise to pass a law to remove this protection from rapists would be an excellent thing for Democratic candidates up and down the ballot to run on. Let’s get Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick on the record on this, shall we?In the meantime, I hope Laura and her attorney can find a way to get justice from this awful situation, whatever the Lege and the Supreme Court do.

(*) Given that the tort “reform” law was enshrined in the Constitution, we may need another amendment to achieve this. I’m unclear on this point, so if any of the legislative experts in my audience care to weigh in, I’d appreciate it. My point about the partisan politics of this remain regardless.

R Kelly still on the bill at FPSF 2015

Progress report from the Cancel R Kelly At FPSF 2015 Facebook page: No progress to report.

Thanks for all the support! On Monday March 9th, we met again with Free Press Summer Fest. They had nothing to report about any decision. So, it’s time to move into all the strategies of a campaign that we intend to win. If you are interested in being part of the next phases of our campaign, say so in the comments!

See here and here for the background. I look forward to seeing what that campaign looks like. As Texas Monthly noted last week, the FPSF Facebook page was still promoting R Kelly’s appearance; that latter link is from a few days after the TM story. The same is true for the banner ad atop the Free Press Houston webpage, which has not mentioned the controversy at all as far as I can tell.

Anyway. There is now a petition that calls on FPSF to cancel R Kelly, and there’s no shortage of better alternatives out there if FPSF wants to look. By now it seems clear that their strategy is to lay low and hope it all blows over. Which, one must admit, is an often successful gambit. It’s on those of us who don’t like this choice or the response to the negative feedback to it to keep up the pressure. So sign the petition, like the Cancel R Kelly at FPSF 2015 Facebook page, and make a little noise. People may or may not listen, but you can be heard.

Chron covers R Kelly controversy

Here’s the story.

Free Press Houston and concert promoter Pegstar are deciding what to do about the inclusion of R&B performer R. Kelly at the 2015 Free Press Summer Festival after a local protest began to draw national attention. Kelly was announced last week as one of the event’s headliners.

Both the popular independent music reporting website Stereogum and veteran music writer Jim DeRogatis — who wrote about accusations about Kelly for the Chicago Sun-Times — have reported on the protest.

The campaign to have Kelly (born Robert Kelly) removed started with the organization Girls Rock Camp Houston, a self-described “DIY, punk, feminist empowerment camp,” which addressed organizers of the event in a letter that read, in part:

“This past week you released the lineup for the Free Press Summer Fest 2015, which includes R. Kelly as a headlining act. A pedophile. Indicted on 21 counts of child pornography. Has filmed video footage of himself engaging in sexual acts with underage girls. Teenage girls he would prey on outside of their gospel choir class at Kenwood Academy in Chicago. Leaving long lasting emotional and psychological trauma, for some resulting in attempted suicide. After dozens of lawsuits, the girls feeling like they could get no justice, settled. The girls of Chicago are the girls of Houston and they MATTER. They deserve the right to live without fear, violence, intimidation and predatory sexual behavior. R. Kelly should not be able to continue to profit from performances that glorify his persona of sexual predator.”

See here for the background. There’s nothing new in the Chron story, and as far as I can tell there’s no news yet on how that Monday meeting with Girls Rock Camp Houston and Pegstar went. In the meantime, the Cancel R Kelly At FPSF 2015 Facebook page, which posted a FAQ about what they’re doing, continues to be the best source of information on this. At some point, the lack of news on the dialog with Pegstar will point to their answer being “no”. We’ll see how long this plays out. Nonsequiteuse and the Washington Post have more.

Why is R Kelly in the Free Press Summerfest lineup?

Maybe this wasn’t such a hot idea.

Music fan David Hayes has attended the Free Press Summer Fest every summer since 2010, and was planning to go this year as well—that is, until he saw that one of the headliners was R. Kelly, the popular R&B singer who has been accused of having sex with teenage girls and possessing child pornography. “Disgusted would be the right word,” Hayes said. “I just can’t believe he’s gigging anywhere after what he’s done. I don’t understand how any person in their right mind could put up the fee to pay him to perform, or go see him.”

Kelly was acquitted in a child pornography trial in 2008 even though a video had surfaced of him having sex with an allegedly underage girl. (Kelly’s lawyers convinced the jury that the identity of the girl in the tape hadn’t been conclusively established.) Still, accusations continue to surface. Dozens of women have sued Kelly for sexual abuse, many of them claiming they were underage at the time. And although the allegations were first made public by Chicago Sun-Times reporter Jim DeRogatis in 2000, R. Kelly remains a marquee performer, releasing bestselling albums, selling out concerts, and headlining events like the 2013 Pitchfork Music Festival.

The tide of public opinion may be turning against the singer, however. Last July, the Fashion Meets Music Festival in Columbus, Ohio dropped R. Kelly from the lineup after protests from other bands, festival vendors, and angry Ohioans. After the Free Press Summer Fest lineup was announced last week, outrage spread across social media. (Sample comments on Facebook: “I just found out that he was on the line up, and was completely at a loss for words”; “He should be in jail.”)

[Monday] night, a group of Houstonians [met] with Free Press publisher Omar Afra to discuss their opposition to Kelly’s appearance. Asked about the meeting by phone, Afra declined to respond until he meets with them. “We’re pretty much in the listening stage right now,” he said. “We never preclude dialogue. If somebody’s got a concern, we’re here to hear that.” But why did Free Press invite Kelly in the first place? Afra’s response: “He’s a musician.”

You should read this 2013 Village Voice story about the allegations against Kelly and the campaign by journalist DeRogatis to get people to pay attention to them. There’s a Cancel R Kelly At FPSF 2015 Facebook page out there in case you want to register your disapproval. I haven’t seen any reports from that Monday meeting itself, but I’m very interested to know how it went, and what if anything Pegstar (whose press releases I get) and Omar Afra will do about this. What do you think? Rocks Off has more.

UPDATE: Another update from Rocks Off.

All backlogged rape kits have been tested

Great news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston officials have completed the lab testing and review of a three-decade backlog of rape kits, yielding 850 matches in the national DNA database.

On Monday, Mayor Annise Parker, District Attorney Devon Anderson and police department and crime lab officials trumpeted the newly complete testing of the 6,600 kits as a major milestone. Now, however, those 850 hits fall to HPD and prosecutors to determine whether charges can be pressed.

So far, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office has prosecuted 29 suspects, disposing of seven cases. One was dismissed because the complainant did not want to go forward with the case, and the others resulted in sentences ranging from two years to 45 years, said Jane Waters, head of the District Attorney’s Office’s special victims bureau.

“I know this milestone is of special importance to the rape survivors and their families and friends because pit means their cases are receiving the attention they should have years ago,” Parker said. “If there is a chance of prosecution in a case that has languished or new cases that are uncovered, that prosecution will happen.”

Anderson also acknowledged for the first time that in some cases alleged assailants committed other crimes, including rape, while their DNA sat untested. She said she did not know off-hand how many suspects fit that description, but there may not have been enough DNA at the time to generate a profile in some cases. Waters added after the press conference that some may have involved victims who chose not to move forward with their cases at the time.

“Yes, it did happen unfortunately,” Anderson said. “We are eagerly looking forward to prosecuting those rapists, those repeat rapists.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The last of the kits was sent off to the lab in August of 2013, so at this point all the work has been done. One pleasant surprise to come out of this was that there were no exonerations. I would have bet a modest sum of money at the beginning of this story that at least one wrongly convicted person would be freed as a result of this. I’m glad that none of the men who will be put into prison because of these rape kits will be replacing someone who shouldn’t have been. KUHF and Hair Balls have more.

Working for progress on LGBT issues

I’m always a little wary when I see a phrase like “chipping away” in a story about LGBT issues, but in this case it refers to obstacles, not hard-won victories, so it’s OK.

RedEquality

The rights and interests of homosexual Texans will be in the spotlight like never before next year, as the state’s same-sex marriage ban gets a long-awaited hearing in federal court and lawmakers take up a slate of bills that address everything from employment and insurance discrimination to local equal rights ordinances.

“In Texas, it’s very difficult with the makeup of the Legislature to pass anything,” said Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. “But it’s called chipping away – keep bringing the issue – until one day it passes.”

[…]

Daniel Williams, of Equality Texas, said he believes there is a “realistic opportunity” to pass legislation allowing both same-sex partners to be listed on birth certificates, and to remove a provision in state law that criminalizes sexual relationships between some same-sex teenagers.

Other bills have been filed to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in public school sex education classes, and for insurance companies and state contractors. Two bills, by [Sen. Jose] Rodriguez and his El Paso colleague Joe Moody, are seeking to remove from state law books an unconstitutional, unenforceable statute that criminalizes sodomy.

Williams also is interested to see whether Gov.-elect Greg Abbott will break with his predecessor by pushing state compliance with federal mandates to reduce the prison rape rate – which disproportionately impacts gay and transgender inmates – and whether more municipalities follow San Antonio, Houston and Plano’s lead in passing non-discrimination ordinances.

Don’t forget about Plano, too. There’s a reason all those hateful pastors are freaking out about this – they know they’re losing. Bills have been filed by Rep. Coleman and others to repeal Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage and to fix the birth certificate problem as noted, and there’s a broader organization being formed to help press the case in Austin. That’s all good and necessary and I have some hope as well, but I suspect that once all is said and done simply not losing ground will be seen as a win with this Legislature.

As for Sen. Donna Campbell’s effort to supersede local efforts by filing a resolution that would block any local rule or state law that infringes on “an individual’s or religious organization’s … sincerely held religious belief,” advocates think the business community will come out against it as they did against similar legislation in Arizona.

“Yes, you can talk about taking power away from those local leaders, but there’s going to be a lot of pushback from the local elected officials and their constituents,” said Jeff Davis, chairman of the Texas chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a national group made up of gay members of the GOP and their allies. He said Campbell’s resolution likely would generate “a lot of talk,” but he believes the effort “isn’t going to move completely forward.”

Meanwhile, religious leaders waging a legal battle against Houston’s non-discrimination ordinance are banking on the increasingly-conservative Legislature to support their efforts. While they await a 2015 court date to determine whether enough signatures were gathered to force a local referendum on the Houston ordinance, they have turned their eyes to Plano, which passed a similar ordinance earlier this month.

“These ordinances are solutions looking for a problem,” said David Welch, director of the Houston-based Texas Pastors Council, which filed a petition against the Plano ordinance this week. “It is a special interest group representing a tiny fraction of the population using the power of law to impose their lifestyle and punish those that disagree with them.”

He said the council will continue to work with lawmakers on legislation that could undo these ordinances at the state level, as well as reaffirm current law that enshrines marriage as between one man and one woman.

It would be nice if the business lobby puts some pressure on to kill not just Campbell’s bill but all of the pro-discrimination bills that Campbell and others are filing, but don’t expect me to have any faith in their efforts. At least as far as constitutional amendments go, there are enough Democrats to keep them off the ballot, barring any shenanigans or betrayals. It would be nice to think that Republicans can play a key role in preserving existing protections, if not expanding them, but there’s no evidence to support that idea at this time with this Legislature. We need to win more elections, that’s all there is to it. Let’s make it through this session unscathed and get started working on that part of it ASAP. BOR has more.

More suspects arrested from the rape kit backlog

More good news.

Houston’s effort to test a nearly three-decade backlog of sexual assault kits has resulted in new charges filed against 19 people, city officials said Monday, including 10 suspects identified and arrested for the first time.

One of the new suspects has been charged in connection with two assaults; another remains at large, Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. The other eight suspects, he said, already are in jail on other charges and now face sexual assault charges.

City Council in 2013 paid $4.4 million to two private labs to test DNA samples from 9,750 cases, including a backlog of 6,600 rape kits dating to 1987. The labs’ work is nearly done, and staff from HPD and the city’s forensics lab now are entering all eligible genetic information into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national law enforcement database.

So far, DNA from 1,031 of those cases has produced “hits,” meaning a suspect’s DNA already was in the database in connection with an earlier crime. In the vast majority of cases reviewed to date, officials said the suspects are known to police, having been arrested, convicted or detained at some point.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said the reviews have confirmed police arrested the right person in 58 sexual assault cases, but officials did not release details Monday about these cases or the 19 suspects hit with new charges. The Houston Chronicle reported in April the testing had identified at least one serial rapist already in jail on other charges.

The police officials gathered Monday at City Hall with Mayor Annise Parker and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to celebrate the renewal of a federal law that frees up millions of dollars to help cities test sexual assault kits. Parker and Cornyn also lauded the city task force – headed by three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 33 investigators – charged with clearing the backlog by updating criminal cases and making arrests as suspects are identified.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me also recommend that you read Emily DePrang’s in depth story in the Observer about how we got here, and how HPD is now leading the way nationally when it comes to dealing with untested rape kits. A few bits to whet your interest:

The trouble is, demand for DNA testing in many places continued to outstrip growth in crime-lab capacity. Backlogs, once cleared, would quickly form again. In 2009, a CBS News investigation found that rape kits in Alabama and Illinois took, on average, six months to process. In Missouri, the wait was almost a year.

These kits—the ones submitted by law enforcement to crime labs for analysis but not returned for more than 30 days—are what the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, considers “backlogged.”

But that’s not what happened in Texas.

Rather, most of the 19,000 kits reported (so far) never saw the inside of a lab because a sexual assault investigator made the decision not to have them tested. Victims who endure DNA collection may understandably assume it will be analyzed as part of the investigative process, but until recently, law enforcement officers could choose whether to test a kit. Often, they chose not to.

This was by no means limited to Texas. A 2011 survey by the National Institute of Justice found that, on average, nearly one in five recent unsolved rape cases nationally contain forensic evidence for which police never requested analysis.

The language used to talk about untested kits can obscure this deliberateness. If only for brevity, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates alike have embraced the term “backlog” to describe all untested kits, but this can wrongly suggest that testing was attempted or intended. The term “backlog” implies the problem was simply a lack of resources instead of a conscious decision by police not to test. Similarly, untested kits are usually described as having been “discovered,” often “discovered in a warehouse,” as if evidence for thousands of sexual assault cases had been misplaced. That’s misleading, too.

“I think on some level jurisdictions love to use the word ‘discovered,’” says Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for the national Joyful Heart Foundation, “because that makes them feel, in a way, a little bit better, and maybe look a little less culpable.” The Joyful Heart Foundation runs the website EndtheBacklog.org, a clearinghouse for information on the quest to test all kits. Tofte says, “I think when people hear, ‘Oh, they discovered a backlog,’ they imagine there was some abandoned meat locker somewhere in a field, and they opened it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! There are all these untested rape kits! We had no idea.’ But yes, jurisdictions know. They know because it’s their policy. If their policy is, ‘Don’t send everything to the lab,’ there shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s a backlog.”

[…]

In 2010—before [Sen. Wendy] Davis’ bill—HPD, on its own initiative, had already implemented a test-all-kits policy. Then it successfully applied for a competitive grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant, awarded just to Houston and Detroit, provided funds for the city not only to inventory its kits, but to study why so many went untested for so long, and to institute reforms. This wasn’t a secretive internal probe, either. Since early 2011, guided by the grant, HPD has hosted regular meetings of a diverse team of researchers, victims’ advocates, health care workers, forensic scientists, prosecutors and police brass, all dedicated to improving their response to sexual-assault survivors in Houston. When the grant ends in October, the group plans to continue its work independently.

Before sitting down together as part of the straightforwardly named Sexual Assault Kit Action-Research Task Force, many of these parties hadn’t previously communicated, let alone collaborated. Others, like victims’ rights advocates and some HPD investigators, were downright adversarial. As part of the group’s research, social scientists surveyed the attitudes of people in the justice system toward victims’ rights advocates and found that investigators in HPD’s Adult Sex Crimes Unit were particularly averse to outside meddling. One investigator told the group’s researchers, “…[Advocates] lead the woman to believe things that aren’t true.” Another complained, “[Advocates] have an agenda and take the woman’s side immediately.”

Undeterred, HPD moved forward with a plan to add a “justice advocate” to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit: a master’s-level social worker charged with improving investigators’ interactions with victims. The advocate, Emily Burton-Blank, was installed within earshot of investigators—a major breach of traditional police insularity—and investigators were required to involve her when contacting victims prone to dropping out of the process, such as people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness.

“Where we saw a large issue was the fact that a lot of people were dropping out of the system shortly after reporting [their rapes],” says HPD Assistant Chief Lentschke. “So we looked at that. How can we keep them in longer? Emily [the advocate] is a living, breathing idea. She’s done magnificent. And the investigators who were so anti-advocate … now they absolutely love her. That’s a huge turnaround.”

Sonia Corrales, chief program officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center, agrees. “Whenever we send a survivor [to HPD],” she says, “we know that when they talk to Emily, they’re getting really great service.”

The justice advocate position was originally slated to last less than a year and be funded only through the grant, but HPD officials quickly found the results so impressive that they made the position permanent and committed to hiring more advocates in the future.

It’s one of several steps HPD has taken to improve its treatment of sexual-assault survivors. New policies now require investigators to go into the field to investigate assaults rather than closing cases if victims fail to return phone calls or respond to a letter. The adult unit recently set aside a private room in which to take victims’ statements rather than interviewing them in the open, surrounded by other staff and ringing phones. And investigators have gotten new training, including education on the neurobiology of trauma so they can better recognize and respond to it.

But most important, HPD leadership has committed to ending the culture of victim blaming.

It’s a great story, so go read the whole thing. And did you notice the reference in there to Wendy Davis? A bill she authored in 2011 provided funding for rape kit testing, requiring every law enforcement agency to tally and report its untested sexual assault kits, and mandating that law enforcement agencies submit kits to a crime lab within 30 days. HPD as noted had gotten started before then, but the rest of the state wouldn’t be where it is now without that bill. Every one of these arrests is a reason to celebrate, as is the revelation – which I admit comes as a bit of a surprise – that no wrongly convicted offenders have been identified. With the winding down of this important project, the city’s new Forensic Science Center should be in good position going forward to ensure that there is never again this kind of backlog. Kudos to all for getting this done, and to Mayor Parker for making it a priority of her administration. Grits has more.

Almost nobody is following Rick Perry’s lead in defying the Prison Rape Elimination Act

Emily dePrang has the story.

Back in March, Gov. Rick Perry sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder declaring his intent to defy a federal law designed to reduce sexual assault in prison. It was a very Perry letter, slinging around terms like “ridiculous” and “unacceptable” and “costly regulatory mess.” But perhaps the most Perry part was his vow to “encourage my fellow governors to follow suit.”

Now, saying a law is wrong for Texas is one thing. Saying governors of other states—you know, just anywhere—should defy the Prison Rape Elimination Act suggests Perry believes the law is wrong in general principle, not specific application. Or else he’s just grandstanding. (A Google search for “Rick Perry” and “grandstanding” returns 173,000 results.) Either way, Perry appears to have had limited success. May 15 was the deadline for governors either to certify their state prisons were compliant or promise to become so, and the Associated Press reported last week that just four other states joined Perry in saying they planned not to try: Idaho, Indiana, Utah and Arizona.

“Perry is sort of out on his own on this one, which is fantastic news,” says Jesse Lerner-Kinglake, who works for an advocacy group that fights prison sexual assault, Just Detention International.

Lerner-Kinglake is one of many observers who can’t work out why Perry picked this particular battle in the first place. The problems with the law that Perry lists are relatively minor, though he describes them as insurmountable—and some don’t actually exist. Lerner-Kinglake says Perry’s letter contains “so many basic errors. It’s really kind of simple stuff that anyone who took a minute to look at the standards would know.”

For example, Perry writes that governors must certify their state’s compliance “under threat of criminal penalties,” but that’s not true. The only enforcement mechanism is that a state can lose 5 percent of its federal corrections grant money. Perry also says the act’s compliance dates are “impossible to meet,” but governors can—and at least 10 did—give assurance letters by the May 15 deadline promising that they were actively working toward compliance.

Perry also seems to think the new requirements apply to “local jails” and would be too expensive for small counties to implement, but they wouldn’t have to, since the act covers only facilities under Perry’s operational control.

The further you get into the letter’s nitty-gritty, the stranger Perry’s defiance seems.

[…]

Perhaps the most understandable of Perry’s objections is that while the Prison Rape Elimination Act requires the state to keep prisoners under 18 separate from adults, Texas considers 17-year-olds to be adults, so the two standards conflict. But none of the other nine states that incarcerate 17-year-olds as adults appear to have defied the law, and the separation requirement doesn’t kick in for three years. Just in March, the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee held a hearing on raising Texas’ adult prosecution age from 17 to 18. Yet this issue and the alleged gender discrimination problem were the sticking points Perry reiterated in a May 16 letter that was much milder in tone.

Present in the first letter but missing from the second was Perry’s claim that Texas already effectively prevented sexual assault in its prisons. Actually, Texas reports almost four times as many prisoner sexual assaults as the national average, according to a federally-funded study from the JFA Institute. Elizabeth Henneke, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, warned at a House hearing that noncompliance could leave the state open to litigation and pointed out that one ex-inmate, who says he was raped at the Travis County Jail, is already suing for $2 million, alleging officials “displayed deliberate indifference to his safety by failing to comply with PREA.”

See here and here for the background. I’m as shocked as you are that Rick Perry could be ill-informed and off base on a political issue. What is annoying about this is that Perry himself is completely shielded from any accountability for his unilateral action. Texas stands to lose some grant money as a result of this, but Perry will be out of office by the time that happens, and I think it’s fair to say that few if any GOP Presidential primary voters will be swayed against him by this. Our next Governor can undo Perry’s action, but it still seems to me that there ought to be a way to make him feel some responsibility for defying a federal law. For once, Rick Perry should not be able to get away with doing whatever the hell he feels like doing regardless of the consequences for others.

We really should comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act

It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the law.

During a House County Affairs Committee hearing Monday, local sheriffs said the most problematic provision of the 2003 law is a requirement that minors be housed separately from adult prison and jail populations. Since Texas is one of only 10 states that classifies 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system, sheriffs would be required to build separate facilities or seek new housing options for these offenders.

“Most county jails just aren’t in the position to do that,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk, who also represents the Texas Sheriffs Association. He said the mandate makes the law nearly impossible to implement for many counties with small staffs and tight budgets.

The law also prohibits what is known as “cross-gender viewing,” a provision that would bar female guards from supervising male inmates during strip searches, showers and other instances. Since 40 percent of Texas’ guards are women, Perry said that enforcing that provision would mean laying off female staff and hiring more men, a violation of labor laws.

Not coming into compliance brings its own costs and dangers, however. The most immediate is the possible loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal grants. Since 2003, Texas has received more than $3.5 million from the federal government to become PREA-compliant, far more than any other state. If Perry insists on not certifying the state as compliant with the prison rape law, Texas could lose some federal grants, according to a preliminary analysis from the Austin-based think tank Texas Criminal Justice Coalition’s Elizabeth Hennecke.

See here for the background. Seems to me that if we’ve been taking grant money meant to aid compliance with the law, the least we can do is comply with the law. If that means the Lege needs to revisit the issue of classifying 17-year-olds as minors, then so be it. Grits has more.

HPD’s good, bad, and ugly

The good news is that the testing of backlogged rape kits has led to the identification of a serial rapist in Houston.

Houston police on Tuesday for the first time identified a criminal suspect – a possible serial rapist – from testing of sexual assault kits that once gathered dust in the police property room.

HPD sex crime investigators said Herman Ray Whitfield Jr., 43, has been charged with four counts of aggravated sexual assault going back to 1992, and said he may have had more victims.One of his victims, police said, was a 12-year-old.

The identity comes one year after two independent labs began processing about 10,000 cases, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, that were stored in the HPD property room. The city turned to an outside lab after DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended when an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work.

In February, Houston Police Department brass said partial results of a DNA testing had not resulted in any false arrests. And while HPD confirmed the testing had led to a number of arrests, they would not reveal the exact number or identify any suspects.

“I don’t think it’s surprising. You have thousands of untested rape kits, and when you start testing them you’re going to start making connections,” said Mark Bennett, a veteran Houston criminal defense attorney.

“If there are rape victims who wouldn’t have been raped if the authorities had done their jobs properly, we should all be outraged by that.”

[…]

Whitfield was sentenced in 1994 to 30 years in prison for kidnapping and served 12 years before being paroled in 2006, [Sgt. John] Colburn said.

He confirmed the evidence in the sexual assault cases was developed by DNA testing by the independent labs.

From 2006 to 2009, Whitfield was living near Airport Boulevard and Texas 288 in the Sunnyside area but had several different addresses before being sent back to prison in 2009 on a parole violation, according to officer Holly Whillock.

At some point during his parole, Whitfield’s DNA was entered into a national database, allowing police to later link him to the four local cases, Colburn said.

His victims ranged from 12 to 30.

Three of the assaults occurred before he went to prison: Dec. 15, 1992, 4300 block of Alvin; Feb. 16, 1993, 4300 block of Alvin; and Aug. 30, 1993, 4400 block of Wilmington.

The other charge stems from an attack on June 11, 2008, in the 4300 block of Wilmington. In that case, police released a composite sketch of the attacker, based upon the victim’s description.

Grits was the first to publish about this, and he notes that there will likely be more such identifications when all is said and done. It’s great that this criminal will be held responsible for his rapes, hopefully to the tune of a life sentence, but as Mark Bennett said in the story, the fact that he wasn’t tied to those crimes before now is a tragedy and an outrage. The failures of HPD’s crime lab are well known, but there has been plenty of other bad news for HPD in recent weeks, all of which led to this blistering editorial in the Chron, in which they call for a third-party investigator to do a thorough examination of HPD’s practices.

It seems like a month can’t go by without HPD landing itself in another controversy. There were two HPD lieutenants who retired, with full benefits, amid allegations of sexual harassment. The crime lab faces an internal investigation after reports that a former employee did not follow proper procedures over the last two years. This comes on the tail of untested evidence, faked results, inaccurate fingerprinting and contaminated blood tests. We thought those days were over.

HPD has also yet to properly address a lauded two-part article by Texas Observer writer Emily DePrang documenting rampant and unpunished police brutality in Houston. Nor has HPD taken significant steps to address police shootings, even after a series of articles by Chronicle reporter James Pinkerton revealed that a quarter of civilians shot by HPD over the past five years had been unarmed.

Now we’re learning that the homicide division simply ignored stacks of cases and failed to keep track of documents. The problems go all the way to the top: City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police sergeant, kept homicide case files after leaving the force (“Council member imposes penalty on self,” Page A1, Thursday). Because of this incompetence, a man charged with murder now sits out of reach in Honduras. How many other murderers roam free because Houston’s police officers refused to do their jobs?

Neither Mayor Annise Parker nor District Attorney Devon Anderson should be satisfied with HPD’s performance. The department’s failures undermine its reliability in the courts and its trustworthiness in the hearts of citizens. All of Houston suffers when HPD falls down on the job, yet it seems like officers get off with a slap on the wrist.

See here and here for those two Observer stories by Emily DePrang; I’ve got links to the Chron stories about shootings here. I’d like to see this be an issue in the DA’s race and in next year’s Mayoral race. Frankly, given that DePrang’s stories were published last summer, it should have been an issue in the 2013 Mayor’s race. Instead of his half-baked reform ideas, Ben Hall should have been all over HPD’s discipline problems and used them to attack Mayor Parker hammer and tong. Sure, a lot of this stuff predates her, and institutional change is hard, but hey, the buck stops here. Every Mayoral wannabe next year needs to be pressed on this. It’s embarrassing, it’s unacceptable, and it needs to stop.

Perry says Texas will not comply with the federal Prison Rape Elimination Act

Amazing the number of laws Rick Perry refuses to obey, isn’t it?

More than a decade after the Prison Rape Elimination Act unanimously passed Congress, federal standards for implementation of the law have been finalized. Now, Gov. Rick Perry and some prison reform advocates are at odds over what those standards mean for Texas lockups and the taxpayers who pay for them.

In a March 28 letter to Attorney General Eric Holder, Perry wrote that while he believed the law was well-intended, he would not certify that the 297 state prisons and local jails that are subject to PREA comply with its regulations come May 15, the certification deadline set by Department of Justice.

The new standards, he wrote, are “impossible,” out of touch with the daily realities of state prisons and would require heavy financial burdens.

“Absent standards that acknowledge the operational realities in our prisons and jails, I will not sign your form and I will encourage my fellow governors to follow suit,” Perry wrote.

But a spokesman for the correctional officers union said that not complying with the federal rules puts Texas at risk financially and legally.

Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, said the prison system has already made significant progress in meeting PREA standards.

“We are compliant with most of PREA’s standards, except for the cross-gender supervision standard,” Clark said.

[…]

“The Texas prison system already realized some time ago that they need to work to create safer environments for inmates,” said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs.

Still, noncompliance with PREA could have financial consequences. It would not only result in a 5 percent reduction of federal funding, but it could make the state vulnerable to lawsuits, said Lance Lowry, president of the Texas correctional employees union.

“The governor’s office has a gross misunderstanding of what the PREA act is all about,” Lowry said. “And the state’s failure to comply with regulation will open up a tremendous amount of liability.”

In recent years, Texas has revamped parole, reduced recidivism, added specialized drug courts and reduced overall prison costs. Still, Deitch said, challenges remain — most importantly, sufficient staffing.

“I think the governor makes a lot of very good points in his letter. He highlights some of the issues that will be hardest for correctional agencies in the state,” Deitch said. “But I think it’s also really important for us to realize that [the state agencies] are already very close to being in compliance now.”

There’s also the fact that just because something isn’t easy to do, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have to do it. We don’t take that attitude with schoolchildren, and we shouldn’t take it with Governors, either. If the Harris County jail can meet this standard – ahead of schedule, by the way – then so can TDCJ.

Grits had this story before the Trib and the Chron did, with followups here and here. Go read what Grits has to say and see what you think. It would also be nice to know what the two leading candidates for Governor think about this as well. Lone Star Q has more.

More details on the rape kit backlog results

HPD reports to Council about the progress of testing done on the backlogged rape kits.

No false arrests by Houston police have been uncovered during an ongoing $4.4 million testing of thousands of old rape kits, but new suspects have been developed with DNA, leading to an undisclosed number of arrests, police commanders told City Council members Tuesday.

Houston Police Department Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard told the council’s Public Safety Committee that 280 “hits” from DNA profiles resulted from the 6,170 cases returned so far to HPD from private labs. Last year, two labs began processing nearly 10,000 cases for usable evidence, including 6,600 untested sexual assault kits, the oldest stretching back to 1987, that were stored in the HPD property room.

DNA testing at HPD’s crime lab was suspended in 2002 after an independent audit revealed shoddy forensic work including unqualified personnel, lax protocols and inadequate facilities that included a roof that leaked rainwater onto evidence.

Slinkard and Capt. Jennifer Evans said that so far, the DNA testing has not found any instances of HPD mistakenly arresting someone.

“There are zero indications of false arrests at this time,” said Evans, who heads HPD’s Special Crimes Division.

[…]

Ray Hunt, president of the Houston Police Officers’ Union, emphasized the 280 hits does not mean HPD is looking for hundreds of active sexual predators.

“I think there’s been an handful of arrests already, but it’s very rare when you get a hit where it’s somebody who is still on the street,” said Hunt, explaining the criminal is usually in jail on another charge.

See here for the previous entry. As of that story, there were still 2410 kits that were being reviewed by HPD to ensure they met standards for federal DNA testing. I don’t know if that has been completed or not, based on this new story. In any event, we got 280 hits in CODIS, of which I presume some are people that are already incarcerated for something, some are the offenders that had been convicted in these cases on other evidence, and some are people that had not been previously identified or arrested as the offender. We don’t have a whole lot more information than that, most likely because the cops don’t want to tip off someone they’re planning to track down. I am certain that the first arrest made based on this evidence will be sufficiently publicized. Beyond that, I’m glad there’s progress. I look forward to seeing this all brought to a completion.

How extreme is too extreme?

The GOP candidates for Lite Guv are doing their best to test the hypothesis that having an R next to your name is all you need to get elected statewide in Texas, regardless of your stated positions on issues.

Lord Voldemort approves this message

The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor do not seem worried about Democratic challengers and independent voters, or particularly concerned about whether their public conversations and debates fuel the Democrats’ election-year motif of a war on women.

If they were, they would not be talking like this. You would not have seen what you saw during the debate early this week as they all raced to the conservative end of the pool, hoping to win the hearts of the Republican voters they will face in the primary election in March.

Instead, you would have seen a quartet of Republicans trying to win a primary without blowing their chances of winning over the more moderate voters who will come out in November.

If this election goes the way of other recent Republican primaries, the candidates’ first encounter will be with a small and conservative bunch. Fewer than two of every 25 Texans will be voting in the primary. General elections draw larger turnouts with different voters. The Democrats will be there, of course, along with political moderates, independents and the sometimes-engaged voters who might be drawn out by a noisy race for governor.

Judging from their responses, the Republican candidates are thinking about the first cohort and not the second. All believe, with varied degrees of enthusiasm, that creationism should be taught in public schools. All four, talking about a recent case in Fort Worth that got national attention, said state law should be rewritten to override a family’s desire to remove life support from a clinically dead woman until her child can be delivered. And each underscored his position on the issues by saying that abortions should not be allowed except when the life of the mother is in danger; that is a break from a more conventional Republican position that would allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

Indeed, an earlier Trib story showed just how out of touch these positions on abortion are with even their own voters.

Though it’s hard to envision given the tone of the Texas Republican Party’s primary contests so far, the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor lurched even farther right in Monday night’s debate in their collective rejection of access to abortion in instances of rape.

While defenders of abortion rights might be tempted to dismiss the candidates’ support for childbirth after rape as another sign of alleged misogyny in the Texas GOP, a plurality of Republicans surveyed in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll have consistently supported permitting abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life — 41 percent in the October 2013 poll, and this after a summer of highly partisan public conflict over abortion legislation.

In that same survey, only 16 percent of Republicans (compared with 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted. This was on the low end of the typical GOP embrace of the prohibitionist position, which has fluctuated between 14 and 27 percent over the life of the poll, with the usual reading in the low 20s.

Allowing abortion only in the case of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life has consistently been the most common GOP position, typically supported by just over 40 percent of Republicans. Support for the most permissive position on abortion was 19 percent among Republican voters in the October 2013 poll, also in a range consistent with previous results.

Overall, 78 percent of Texas Republicans believed that there were some situations in which abortion should be accessible. Each and every candidate dismissed even the most restrictive version of this position in Monday night’s debate. (Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to suggest he would have concerns about the life of the mother if she were his wife in such a situation, though he was unclear how these feelings translate into his policy position.)

The belief that pregnant rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term, evident on the debate stage, seems to be more about positioning in the Republican primary than a careful reading of public opinion. And while the Tea Party remains the easy scapegoat for the GOP’s rightward push, in this case at least, our polling shows that only 13 percent of Tea Party Republicans support a complete prohibition on the procedure.

They’re pandering to a minority of a minority within their own party. I only wish someone had asked them during the debate if they’d support the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them. I mean, if it’s murder and all, why wouldn’t they? Clearly, there’s still space for them to move further to the right on this.

The bigger question is whether November voters are paying attention. The Observer has video of the debate in case you have the stomach for it. Jacquielynn Floyd was watching.

Monday’s televised four-candidate debate — which I bravely tied myself to a chair to watch in its entirety — seemed less like a political forum than a tribal pageant to be crowned the Truest Conservative in All the Land.

Voters hoping to be illuminated on the issues facing Texas were surely disappointed in what they got from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his three GOP challengers: Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick.

Their joint performance brought to mind a flock of talking myna birds — or perhaps a single monster parrot with four heads — that kept shouting out the same disjointed phrases: “Conservative leader!” “Secure the border!” “Protect life!”

All four of these candidates voiced wholehearted agreement that the corpse of a legally dead pregnant woman, Marlise Muñoz, should have been forced to continue incubating a malformed fetus — despite her own stated wishes, the pleas of her family and ultimately the decision of a state district court judge.

Each in turn agreed that creationism, an anti-science, biblical literalist explanation for the origin of life, should be routine curriculum for all Texas students — even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching it in public schools violates the Constitution.

They declared in perfect four-part harmony that rape victims or girls molested by their own fathers should be forced to carry pregnancies to term.

They spoke darkly about the dire threat posed by alien hordes pouring across our undefended border — and they didn’t mean Canadians.

To a lot of people, this all transcends so-called extremism. It’s crazy talk.

Funny how respect for the Constitution only extends to things they agree with, isn’t it? Lisa Falkenberg was also watching.

As I watched that debate among four Republican lieutenant governor candidates earlier this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: How on Earth did we get here? And at this rate, where in the hell are we going?

Actually, the first question isn’t a mystery. We’re here because relatively few Texans vote, thereby surrendering the political fate of our great state to the whim of Republican primary voters who make up only 5 to 7 percent of the voting-age population.

The farther right that sliver of the electorate slides, the farther out to la-la land the candidates have to go to reach them. So you get what we had in Dallas the other night.

The candidates – Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, all but the last from Houston – provided political theater at its best, policy at its worst. They seem to operate in a kind of alternate universe where pragmatism is a sin, moderation is a slur and the word “conservative,” which used to stand for fiscal responsibility, personal freedom and limited government, is farce.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Take the horrifying case of Erick Muñoz, the anguished father and husband who had to fight a Fort Worth hospital in court after it refused to remove his 14-week-pregnant, brain-dead wife from machines that kept her lungs and heart going.

The hospital cited a state law that denies life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient; the husband cited his wife’s wishes never to be kept breathing by machines.

The fetus itself had been deprived of oxygen after the mother’s collapse and family attorneys said the child suffered severe deformities, fluid on the brain and possible heart problems. So-called pro-lifers talk about fetal pain. This seemed more like fetal torture. It compounded the agony of Muñoz, his toddler son, and the rest of the family. That agony went on for two months before a mercifully sane judge finally ended it this week, ruling what had been obvious to many from the beginning: Marlise Muñoz was already dead.

That fact didn’t seem to matter to the Texas lieutenant governor candidates. Only Patterson even acknowledged it. Everybody seemed to agree the judge erred and the fetus should have been kept alive at all costs.

“If I had been in that judge’s shoes, I would have ruled differently,” Dewhurst said. Thank the Lord he wasn’t.

But he could be re-elected Lt. Governor, and if he’s not it will be at least in part because these extreme voters he’s desperately trying to please didn’t think he was extreme enough. The Texas Democratic Party cheekily congratulated Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for winning the debate by virtue of not being one of the crazy people on stage, but she can’t win if people don’t pay attention. Sen. Van de Putte won’t drive us into the ditch like these guys are promising to do. We need to do our part.

Clearing the rape kit backlog is producing results

Very promising results.

Private forensic laboratories hired to clear the Houston Police Department’s untested DNA evidence – including a decades-old rape kit backlog – have identified potential offenders in a third of the cases where sufficient DNA samples were found, according to a HPD report.

[…]

Since the HPD lab resumed operations about six years ago, the city has spent millions to outsource DNA evidence testing to reduce the backlog, including $2.1 million in federal money in 2010 and 2011. That money was used, in part, to study why the kits had not been tested.

Last year’s multimillion-dollar clearance project to bulk outsource the cases came more than a year after HPD officials began an inventory of the sexual assault kits in their property room to determine how many had not been tested.

The two private labs have received 9,500 cases, and completed testing in nearly 6,200, according to the HPD report. Of those completed, sufficient evidence was found in 1,268, about a third of the 3,760 cases that have undergone HPD review to ensure the DNA evidence meets federal standards.

The remaining 2,492 cases reviewed did not find any results useful to investigators, the report states. Another 2,410 of the cases where testing was completed are still in HPD review.

See here and here for the background. If the same ratio of useful results holds true for the 2400 cases still being reviewed by HPD, then Houston will have had a higher success rate than some other cities when they finally cleared their backlogs. That doesn’t mean we should expect a thousand or more arrests – going by prior experience, we may see arrests in ten percent of these cases – but still, every single one will be good news. And of course, there are other possibilities.

Bob Wicoff, with the Harris County public defenders office, said the forensic testing could possibly result in exonerations of people wrongly convicted of a crime, or lead to the apprehension of guilty parties.

“There could be some exonerations out of this, but it’s too early to say,” said Wicoff, who represented two Harris County men who were wrongly convicted and imprisoned for rape. “That’s the whole point of doing the testing – its to identify unknown DNA.”

I’ll be surprised if there isn’t at least one exoneration out of all this. The experience we’ve seen elsewhere strongly suggests that one or more innocent men will be identified as a result of this work. That too is very good news, and it will be doubly so if the real rapist gets caught as well.

More on the jail’s new non-discrimination policy

Here’s the Chron story on the new non-discrimination policy that was implemented at the Harris County Jail.

Crafted in the last 16 months with input from local and national LGBT community leaders and groups, it strictly prohibits “discrimination or harassment of any kind based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” and provides for the special handling of LGBT inmates to mitigate safety concerns. Included is a provision – required by the new federal standards – that transgender inmates be housed based, in part, on which gender they identify with rather than their physical anatomy, the sex they were assigned at birth or the one they used the last time they were incarcerated. Therefore, an inmate who is physically a man could be housed in the women’s unit or vice versa.

Geared particularly toward transgender inmates, the policy also requires all jail staff to address inmates by their “chosen name” and “proper pronoun” and says employees who violate the rules can be fired or face criminal charges or other penalties.

It also calls for all employees to go through training on the policy, including “refresher” training every two years. About 80 staffers will be certified as so-called “Gender Identification Specialists,” charged with interviewing inmates and helping decide where to house those who are LGBTI.

A “Gender Classification Committee,” according to the policy has the “final authority” in deciding how LGBTI inmates are housed.

[…]

The LGBT community and detention experts generally applaud the policy, but some say it could pose some problems in practice or that it does not go far enough to protect an inmate population the U.S. Justice Department described last year as “among those with the highest rates of sexual victimization.”

Harper Jean Tobin, director of policy at the Washington-based National Center for Transgender Equality, who worked on the policy with Garcia and his staff, said Harris County “is certainly to be commended for being out ahead in this regard.”

National PREA Resource Center Co-Director Michela Bowman, however, said there are benefits and dangers in creating a separate set of rules for LGBTI inmates based on the new standards, which also apply to other vulnerable populations.

Bowman said it could encourage rather than curb discrimination if not done carefully.

“We want to encourage efforts like this, certainly, but it’s very sensitive and you want to make sure that it’s done right,” Bowman said. “It seems to come from a well-intentioned place and it seems to be a clear effort to protect people, but there are just certain elements of it that make me scratch my head a little bit.”

See here for the background. Everyone quoted is positive about the policy overall, but some have concerns that this aspect or that might not work as planned. I suspect that has more to do with Harris County being out front with a policy that goes beyond the basic recommendations than anything else. Some parts of this will likely need to be refined once we see how they work in practice, and that’s okay. No one is screaming and pointing at a particular aspect of the policy saying “this will fail!”, we just don’t have any hard data to go by so we’re taking our best guesses as to how things play out. Down the line, as the bumps get smoothed out, Harris County can serve as a model for others to emulate. That’s a pretty darned good position to be in.

No action on SB5 in the Senate

The name of the game is running out the clock.

Right there with them

Right there with them

Texas Democrats, far outnumbered by Republicans in both the House and the Senate, are nonetheless on the verge of killing one of the most restrictive abortion proposals in the nation — at least for now.

Using delaying tactics and parliamentary rules, the minority party argued into the wee hours in the state House on Monday morning and then stuck together to keep the GOP from jamming Senate Bill 5 through the Senate in the afternoon. Republicans vowed to try to try to muster enough support to push the bill through again Monday night, but it was unclear if they could change any minds.

SB 5, by state Sen. Glenn Hegar, R-Katy, would make abortion illegal after 20 weeks and would establish stringent new requirements for facilities that perform abortions. Supporters of the bill say it would make the procedures safer for women and protect unborn babies. Abortion rights proponents say the legislation would shut down most of the abortion facilities in Texas.

With barely more than a day left in the 30-day special session called by Gov. Rick Perry at the end of May, that means Democrats have moved much closer to putting the controversial measure within the range of a filibuster.

“I think we are now in a position to try to do what’s right for the women of this state,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, chairman of the Senate Democratic Caucus. “We need to be protecting women’s health in this state, and we need to be protecting a woman’s right to make choices about her body.”

Sen. Wendy Davis, a Fort Worth Democrat and rising star in the party, has vowed to launch a filibuster. Unless Republicans can change some votes, the abortion measure can’t be brought up for debate until Tuesday morning at about 11 a.m. Since the session ends at midnight Tuesday, that means she could kill the legislation by talking nonstop for about 13 hours.

The Democrats won a test vote at about 4 p.m., turning away a GOP attempt to fast track the abortion legislation by suspending a 24-hour layout rule. It takes a supermajority — two-thirds of those present — to suspend that rule. The Democrats voted as a bloc and stopped debate on the measure.

There was a second attempt to get a motion to suspend but it failed as well. The Senate is in recess until 10 AM today. As noted, from that point on it’s a matter of someone talking till midnight, at which point the session expires. There could, of course, be a second session called, but you take your victories where you can.

In the meantime, let the blame game begin!

Accusations of who’s to blame for the anti-abortion proposal’s potential demise already are starting to fly.

Look no further than the always vocal Sen. Dan Patrick, R-Houston, who blasted leadership after the Senate recessed Monday afternoon.

In a short back-and-forth with reporters, Patrick said “very clearly it does not look like there was coordination between the people who lead the majority” when it comes to Senate Bill 5.

“It’s just clear that we appear to be flying a little bit by the seat of our pants. These are important bills. You don’t fly by the seat of your pants when you try to pass important bill.”

Patrick added: “We’re the majority if the majority can’t pass the legislation they think is important and the people think is important then that’s a great concern to me.”

In response, Lt. Gov David Dewhurst said Patrick misrepresented leadership’s strategy and that he “had a very clear plan” to “pass good pro life legislation.”

Dewhurst quickly turned the table to focus on the House, which passed SB5 Monday morning.

After passing the bill, the House sent SB5 to the Senate for the upper chamber to concur with a change it made when the lower chamber put back language to ban abortions at 20-weeks.Concurring with the House change is the final step for the Senate before sending the bill to Gov. Rick Perry.

But because the House wrestled with SB5 from Sunday evening all the way into Monday morning, it delayed the Senate’s ability to move forward and cut short the potential for an even longer filibuster from Democrats.

“I asked the House ‘please don’t send it to us at the last minute, please,’” Dewhurst said. “Send it out at the latest on Sunday afternoon, so we’ll be able to take it up outside of filibuster range. “

Dewhurst added: “The House, by passing this out late this morning, it means that we can’t bring the bill up until tomorrow at 11 o’clock … most of us … could stand up for 13 hours and talk. That’s the reason why I wanted Senate Bill 5 passed out of the House by late afternoon Sunday, so we could bring it up this afternoon, and I think out of filibuster range where its difficult for most people to talk for 36 hours in a row.”

I don’t know, I might have included Rick Perry in the blame, since he sets the session agenda and all. But then, Dan Patrick isn’t (possibly) running against Perry. And it must be noted, Dewhurst did try to go the extra mile.

Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told Sen. Leticia Van de Putte in a letter Monday that the he plans to move forward with a package of strict abortion restrictions even if the San Antonio Democrat is away attending services for her recently deceased father.

“I cannot in good conscience delay the people’s work on these important matters,” Dewhurst wrote Monday.

[…]

Van de Putte’s vote could be what determines whether Democrats can block Republican efforts to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. Without her, Democrats don’t have enough votes to block it.

And Van de Putte is scheduled to be in San Antonio on Monday attending services for her father, Daniel San Miguel Jr., who was killed in a car accident last week. Van de Putte lobbed a letter at Dewhurst a day earlier (rumors have been swirling all day at the Capitol about Van De Putte potentially showing up; her office declined to comment).

In his letter, Dewhurst offered condolences but made clear the Senate cannot wait because time is running out on the special session.

“I believe we can fulfill our obligation to the people of Texas while honoring your beloved father’s memory,” he wrote.

The wild card in the equation: Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville.

Lucio supports the package of anti-abortion bills, and he’s also planning to vote in favor of a motion to suspend the 24-hour layout rule. But he’s said he won’t cast that vote unless Van De Putte is on the floor.

“Senator Van de Putte asked me directly — knowing I support Senate Bill 5—to nonetheless vote no on suspending the 24-hour posting rule on the bill until she can be in the Senate chamber to cast her vote against it.” Lucio said. “I am honoring Senator Van de Putte’s request.”

Heck of a guy, that David Dewhurst. Remember when he tried to take advantage of John Whitmire being in the bathroom to push through a vote on voter ID during Mario Gallegos’ convalescence after his liver transplant? Good times. Lucio thankfully stuck to his word, and Dewhurst was thwarted – for now – having ruined Sen. Kevin Eltife’s vacation for nothing.

So it comes down to today, and there will be filibustering. Maybe the Rs have something up their sleeve to overcome that – after 10 AM, all they’ll need is a majority vote – and as noted, maybe Rick Perry will call another session. But this is a win, and as was the case ten years ago with the Killer Ds, it’s a galvanizing event. If you’re in Austin today, you can be there to see it for yourself. And wherever you are, you can keep the ball moving after sine die, whenever that may be.

Finally, I can’t let this go without a tip of the hat to Rep. Jodie Laubenberg, who demonstrated that one does not have to be a man to say something profoundly stupid and offensive about rape. As they say, sometimes no sarcastic remark seems adequate. PDiddie has more.

Senate approves rape kit testing bill

Earlier this week I mentioned a bill, SB1636, by Sen. Wendy Davis that aimed at getting thousands of untested rape kits analyzed. I’m pleased to say that it was passed unanimously by the Senate today, and now heads to the House.

SB 1636 by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would require a police department to submit a rape kit to a crime lab within at least 30 days of determining that a sexual assault has occurred. DNA analysis would have to be done no later than 90 days after the sexual assault was reported. After testing, the Texas Department of Public Safety would compare the DNA profile to those already in databases maintained by the state and the FBI. To the extent that funding is available, the bill also requires testing of untested rape kits in active cases since 1996.

Initially, an $11 million price tag on the rape kit bill generated concerns among lawmakers and law enforcement officials. Davis, however, changed the measure to require testing only when funding is available and ensure that no new money would be required.

Good. Some background on the bill is here, and a press release by Sen. Davis is here. I hope it will be swiftly passed by the House so the state can get to work on this important task.

Two forensic bills

Texas has thousands of untested rape kits in it, and a bill to try to make something happen with them.

The bill, by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, would require a police department to submit a rape kit to a crime lab within at least 10 days, and complete the DNA analysis no later than 90 days after the sexual assault was reported. After testing, the Texas Department of Public Safety would compare the DNA profile to those already in databases maintained by the state and the FBI. To address the “backlog of evidence,” the bill requires — only to the extent that funding is available — that all untested rape kits from active cases since 1996 be tested by 2014.

According to a fiscal analysis of the bill, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio alone have more than 22,000 untested rape kits.

[…]

DPS estimates it would cost Texas more than $11 million to outsource testing to crime labs with enough personnel to process all of the rape kits.

“It would be a tremendous unfunded mandate on our department,” Jim Jones, a sergeant with the San Antonio Police Department, told the committee. Departments don’t typically test rape kits when the suspect is known to the victim, because DNA testing only shows that a sex act occurred. It can’t determine whether the act was consensual, Jones said. If a suspect is convicted, their DNA profile will be compared to state and FBI DNA databases anyway, Jones said, leaving little reason for the department to incur the cost of testing the rape kit.

And 10 days isn’t necessarily enough time to determine whether a sexual assault actually occurred, Jones said. Submitting rape kits prematurely for testing — at about $1,000 each — would burden the state and local departments with undue costs.

Davis said she is willing to change the bill to give police more time for investigation, but the cost shouldn’t be an issue for local police departments. The bill doesn’t mandate testing, she said. It only requires testing if there are adequate financial resources and personnel. But she hopes the legislation will encourage city councils to appropriate funding to address the backlog.

The bill in question is SB1636. I don’t know how much effect this will have in the absence of an assured funding source. Frankly, the cost for this isn’t very much to potentially clear a bunch of violent crimes, but that isn’t in the cards. For reasons unclear to me, this isn’t enough of a priority to merit an appropriation.

The Senate is also pondering broadening the scope of the Forensic Science Commission.

Senate Bill 1658 by Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa would greatly expand the commission’s authority to investigate botched forensic evidence. The bill makes clear that the commission could investigate allegations of wrongdoing in any field of forensic science. (Some critics of the commission have argued that current law allows the commission to oversee only accredited crime labs. The commission is waiting for the Texas Attorney General to issue an opinion on these jurisdiction issues. The bill would clarify that dispute.)

The bill would also allow the commissioners to launch an inquiry on their own. As it stands now, the commission can investigate a case only if someone has filed a complaint. The provision, which would greatly expand the commission’s authority, drew criticism from Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican, at [Tuesday’s] hearing. She said she might oppose the bill if that provision remained. Hinojosa said he’d try to convince her over the next few days why the commission needed such power. “Good luck,” quipped Sen. John Whitmire.

Huffman wasn’t the only senator who had concerns. Houston Democrat Rodney Ellis questioned Hinojosa extensively. Ellis was suspicious of a provision that folds the commission into the Department of Public Safety. The governor’s office has tried in past sessions to house the commission within DPS—an idea Ellis and other supporters of the commission have successfully resisted. They want to maintain the commission’s independence, especially to investigate DPS crime labs.

Hinojosa assured Ellis that DPS would provide only administrative support for the commission and wouldn’t have any influence over which cases the commissioners look into—to “avoid a conflict of interest.”

This is more or less how I envisioned the Forensic Science Commission working when it was first created, and the expressed concerns aside I daresay it’s closer to what the Senate envisioned for it at the time. There’s plenty of stuff for them to look into and hopefully correct if they’re given the chance. As long as they can get a Chair that is interested in the truth and not in covering Rick Perry’s backside, I’d like to see them get it. Grits has more.

Prior bad acts

I don’t know about this.

In what critics say could be a “seismic change” in state criminal law, the Texas Senate tentatively approved a bill that would allow jurors in sexual assault cases to hear testimony about similar allegations against a defendant — even if the previous incident did not result in a conviction or even criminal charges.

The bill by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, would allow the introduction of testimony about allegations of other sexual assaults to be admitted during the guilt or innocence phase of a trial if a judge — outside the presence of the jury — hears the evidence and deems it relevant.

The bill gives “greater resources to prosecutors and victims of sexual assault,” Huffman said Monday. Allowing testimony of similar sex offenses “brings Texas closer in line with federal rules of evidence,” she added.

Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, opposed the bill, arguing the measure would bring about “more wrongful convictions” because jurors will be afraid to acquit a defendant against whom they have heard multiple allegations. Jurors who are skeptical of the evidence of the case before them could feel compelled to convict “because he (the defendant) must have done something wrong,” West said.

“All of us want to be law and order and the whole nine yards,” West said. “But this is carving new ground in criminal jurisprudence. You ought to think long and hard, ‘is that fair?’ ”

I share Sen. West’s concerns. Maybe if Texas had more robust innocence procedures, and a Court of Criminal Appeals that wasn’t a wholly owned subsidiary of the prosecution, this might be all right. As things actually are, I too expect that we’ll see more wrongful convictions as a result. This needs to be given third and fourth thoughts before it gets enacted. Grtits has more.

It’s going to be a misogynistic year

It already has been, unfortunately. Here’s Gail Collins on the recent efforts by some right wing activists who are targeting Planned Parenthood:

The people trying to put Planned Parenthood out of business do not seem concerned about what would happen to the 1.85 million low-income women who get family-planning help and medical care at the clinics each year. It just doesn’t come up. There’s not even a vague contingency plan.

“I haven’t seen that they want to propose an alternative,” said [Planned Parenthood president Cecile] Richards.

There are tens of millions Americans who oppose abortion because of deeply held moral principles. But they’re attached to a political movement that sometimes seems to have come unmoored from any concern for life after birth.

There is no comparable organization to Planned Parenthood, providing the same kind of services on a national basis. If there were, most of the women eligible for Medicaid-financed family-planning assistance wouldn’t have to go without it.

That’s because the people doing this and the legislators who enable them don’t care about that. The hostility they have towards women is shocking. Kaili Joy Grey summarizes some of that hostility:

[A]s Republicans have gained greater control of elected offices at the federal and state levels, we are witnessing the concerted effort to undo the very legislation intended to protect women’s health, lives, and livelihood. Even as Republicans offer empty platitudes about equality and feminism, their agenda to legislate women into second-class citizenship has never been clearer.

One of the major battles for Republicans is equal pay. Last year, Senate Republicans voted to blockthe Paycheck Fairness Act, which would have expanded and improved the protections of the 45-year-old Equal Pay Act. Republicans made clear at the time that they were far more concerned with protecting employers from costly litigation than with ensuring that employers are not allowed to discriminate against women.

Now, Republicans in Minnesota are taking this argument one step further, by proposing legislation to repeal existing laws to enforce equal pay for women because it’s just too expensive for small businesses and local governments to ensure that women are paid equally. And besides, they argue, such enforcement is no longer necessary because the pay gap has been all but eradicated.

It’s a lie, of course. The pay gap still exists. In Minnesota, for example, in both the private and public sectors, the gap between men and women’s pay ranges from 24 to 49 percent.

Critics of equity laws argue that the pay gap isn’t real because women choose lower-paying jobs. That too is a lie. Even within the same professions, the pay gap between men and women is real and significant. An extensive new study found that in the medical field, female doctors earn nearly $17,000 less than their male counterparts. To compare, the pay gap for doctors in 1999 was $3,600. That pay gap is real, and it is getting worse.

[…]

What has received far less attention this week is a new bill introduced by State Representative Bobby Franklin in the Georgia State Legislature:

To amend Titles 16 and 17 of the Official Code of Georgia Annotated, relating to criminal law and criminal procedure, respectively, so as to change the term “victim” to the term “accuser” in the context of a number of statutes making reference to circumstances where there has not yet been a criminal conviction; to provide for related matters; to repeal conflicting laws; and for other purposes.

The law would apply to victims of stalking, rape, and domestic violence, crimes in which the vast majority of victims are women and the perpetrators are men. As the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee explained:

Burglary victims are still victims. Assault victims are still victims. Fraud victims are still victims. But if you have the misfortune to suffer a rape, or if you are beaten by a domestic partner, or if you are stalked, Rep. Franklin doesn’t think you’ve been victimized. He says you’re an accuser until the courts have determined otherwise.

To diminish a victim’s ordeal by branding him/her an accuser essentially questions whether the crime committed against the victim is a crime at all. Robbery, assault, and fraud are all real crimes with real victims, the Republican asserts with this bill.

Republicans have, for years, attempted to redefine what constitutes “real” rape and not-really rape, or as Kristen Schall on the Daily Show called it, rape-ish. In 2006, South Dakota State Senator Bill Napoli made news when he described what he considered a legitimate exception to the sweeping new abortion bill that would not permit exceptions even for rape or incest:

A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.

Brutal rape. Forcible rape. Rape of a religious virgin who intends to save herself for marriage. These are the rape victims accusers deemed valid by the Republican ideology that presumes rape victims are guilty until proven innocent. While such proposed legislation has not yet become the law of the land, the idea that rape victims accusers are responsible for their own assault has taken firm root in our discourse about violence against women.

This is in addition to another bill, HR 358, which would allow hospitals to refuse treatment to a woman who might need a pregnancy terminated, even if doing so could result in the woman’s death. Think it could never come to that? The state of Idaho has already refused to sanction a pharmacist who refused to fill an emergency prescription because the requester didn’t give in to his demand to know if the woman who needed the prescription had had an abortion.

I have always found stuff like this to be shocking, repugnant, and deeply puzzling, but it takes on a new urgency for me these days as a father of two little girls. How am I supposed to protect them from that? I can’t, of course. But I can teach them to fight back against it, and that’s very much what I intend to do.

By the way, those jokers who did that undercover videotaping of the Planned Parenthood employees? They altered the audio on their tape to make the employee look worse. This is not the first time these folks have done that, either. Why is it that they are granted any credibility by mainstream news outlets?

And finally, the Senate this week takes up the Governor’s “emergency” sonogram legislation, which is designed primarily to make women who are having an abortion feel bad about it. The thing to watch is whether the Senate Democrats refuse to vote to suspend the rules to let the bill come to the floor. There are nine sure votes against bringing it up; the Senators I’m uncertain about are Carlos Uresti, Eddie Lucio, and Judith Zaffirini. If two of them vote against suspending the rules, the bill will be stopped. That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be attached to some other bill later as an amendment, of course. But keep an eye on the voting for this one, it’s by no means guaranteed to pass.

A response from TAASA to the rape kits story

When I posted about that recent Click2Houston story regarding the sexual assault victim who was billed by the hospital for the rape kit, I wondered if this was a screwup or standard procedure. Well, here’s a response to the story from the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA) that clears things up.

Recently a Houston television station ran a story about a rape victim who was billed for her own rape exam. The news piece implied this was a common practice in Texas despite being told by several sources, including the Deputy Director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault (TAASA), that this was not the case. This news story, riddled with inaccuracies and half truths, was picked up by other news outlets and blogs and it took on a life of its own. Activists, advocates, survivors and other concerned individuals from around the country were justifiably angry and began to demand answers and action. The problem is there isn’t really a problem, just the perception of injustice that is spiraling out of control.

TAASA is concerned that this misinformation will have a chilling effect on a rape victim’s willingness to report the crime and get a forensic/medical exam (rape kit). We want to assure everyone that the cost of a forensic exam is not billed to the victim. This is always the responsibility of law enforcement and they in turn can be reimbursed for up to $700 though the Crime Victim’s Compensation (CVC) fund. If the cost exceeds this amount it is absorbed by the law enforcement agency or hospital, not the victim.

Additional medical treatment is not part of the forensic exam and billed separately. All crime victims, i.e. rape, gunshot, mugging, etc. are billed for medical treatment. They are eligible to apply for reimbursement of these costs through the CVC fund. The CVC fund is statutorily the “payer of last resort,” so if a victim has medical insurance it will be billed first. This is to assure the fiscal integrity of the CVC fund and make certain that funds remain available to crime victims who are uninsured or underinsured. Rape victims are not singled out in this process for reimbursement, it is consistently applied to all crime victims and this process is replicated with few variations across the country.

As with any system there is the possibility of human error. A victim could be misinformed or struggle to make sense of the process. This is the principle reason TAASA believes rape crisis advocates are so valuable to rape victims. Rape crisis advocates are not formally part of the systems or institutions that rape survivors must navigate, but are a valuable ally to victims when they encounter barriers or inconsistencies. I wish the rape victim in the Houston story had an advocate to help her through this very difficult time. Our only interest in this situation is that rape victims are supported and assisted. I encourage rape victims to access the services they so desperately need and not be deterred by the perception that they will be charged for their rape exam.

That was written by Annette Burrhus-Clay, TAASA’s Executive Director. It’s still not clear to me where the error occurred, and I wish she had elaborated on the “inaccuracies and half truths” she said the story contained. It is good to know that this was an aberrant case, hopefully an isolated one, and I certainly agree with the call for rape crisis advocates. If it were earlier in the session, perhaps this story could be used to galvanize support for more funding for these advocates. Given where we are, I suppose the best we can do is try to get the word out and make sure as many people know how it’s supposed to be as possible. Thanks to Baby Snooks for emailing this link to me.

Paying for rape kits

I missed this last week, and reading it now I’m one part outraged and one part puzzled.

Victims of sexual assault are getting bills, rejection letters and pushy calls from bill collectors while a state crime victims’ fund sits full of cash, Local 2 Investigates reported Thursday.

“I’m the victim, and yet here I am. I’m asked to pay this bill and my credit’s going to get hurt,” said a single mom from Houston.

She received bills marked, “delinquent,” after she visited a hospital where police told her to have evidence gathered. Officers assured her she would not pay a dime for that rape kit to be handled.

“That was unreal,” she said. “I never thought I’d be out anything for what I went through.”

[…]

“It is set up legislatively so that the criminal justice system pays for whatever evidence collection occurs,” said Kelly Young, with the Houston Area Women’s Center, a rape crisis facility.

Police departments are reimbursed for up to $700 by the Texas Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, but many departments cover the bills if they exceed that.

After that happens, victims can apply for other costs associated with the rape kit hospital visits to be covered by the fund.

The Houston Police Department made one payment toward the single mother’s hospital bill, but when she submitted the $1,847 worth of remaining bills to the Crime Victims’ Compensation Fund, she received a denial letter, telling her that law enforcement should have paid.

“She’s getting the run-around,” said Young at the rape crisis center, which was not involved in her case.

“There may be lots of survivors who have this happen and we don’t know because they don’t know that they shouldn’t be getting the bills,” she said.

Well, that’s a good question. Was there a screwup, on the part of either HPD or the hospital, or is this just how it goes and this particular woman happened to be the first one to get her story in the news? How we react to try to ensure that this never happens again depends on the answer to that.

Attorney General’s spokesman Jerry Strickland said the crime victim fund is enforcing strict guidelines imposed by the legislature as to which bills are paid and which victims are sent a denial notice.

Otherwise, he said that fund could become “insolvent.”

He said state law is clear that crime victims must exhaust all other potential funding sources, such as local police or their own health insurance.

“The legislature set it up that way,” said Strickland.

When asked for a number of how many denial letters had been sent out to Texas rape victims in the past, Strickland did not have an answer after checking with his crime victims’ compensation office workers.

He said the attorney general’s office constantly trains hospitals and health care providers on how to help victims in getting reimbursed for their expenses.

Again, the question that comes to my mind here is, screwup or SOP? Is it the intent of the Legislature that it’s the responsibility of the crime victim to do the paperwork to be reimbursed for any costs the local police department doesn’t pick up? Or is it the case that it’s up to the police departments and/or the hospitals to deal with it themselves and leave the victims out of it? One would hope that’s what they had in mind when that state fund was created – after all, as Salon puts it, we don’t charge burglary victims for the cost of dusting for prints – and one imagines that if cornered, the vast majority of legislators would agree that that’s how it should be. Perhaps that’s a subject on which the AG could issue an opinion.

Where the outrage really comes is that if this is the way it’s been all along, intended or not, it’s too late for the Lege to take action to fix it. The least we can do, therefore, is to find out for sure whether or not this is something that needs a legislative fix or a procedural one. Whatever the case, the cost of solving and prosecuting the crime should not fall in any way on the person victimized by the crime. Thanks to Ginger for calling this to my attention.