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Rape victims may see long-delayed justice meted out

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We had two almost simultaneous reactions when we saw the Survivor Act, legislation that will finally resolve a statewide backlog of sexual assault kits and prevent the problem from recurring:

• That’s great news.

• Why did it take so long?

State Attorney General Josh Stein and a bipartisan group of state lawmakers unveiled the legislation — also called the Standing Up for Rape Victims Act — Tuesday. The law would accelerate the testing of existing rape kits that are now in law enforcement hands and will see to it that the kits are henceforth tested promptly and evidence returned to investigators in timely fashion.

It seems almost unbelievable, but there are still about 15,000 untested kits gathering dust at police departments around the state. They represent thousands of sexual assaults that could have been solved, thousands of rapists who could have been jailed, thousands of women who have waited years for justice, under a frightening cloud of uncertainty about whether their assailant is still out there and able to attack again.

“Testing sexual assault kits is essential to protecting our communities,” Stein said at a press conference. “Testing old kits, simply put, solves cold cases. It’s that simple. We secure justice for victims. We punish offenders and prevent future assaults.”

The proof of what Stein said came just a day before the legislation was unveiled, as the Fayetteville Police Department made an arrest in a 32-year-old cold case rape investigation, thanks to DNA testing of one of those old evidence kits. A North Charleston, South Carolina, man, 52-year-old Anthony Keith Grant, was taken into custody and charged with a rape that took place in October 1987 at a convenience store on Pamalee Drive. A clerk opening the store early in the morning was raped.

Fayetteville Police Lt. John Somerindyke, who heads the department’s special victims unit, was at the press conference Tuesday. “It’s really cool timing being here today,” he said. “Yesterday, we made an arrest in an unsolved 1987 stranger rape case. It’s a case where the sexual assault kit sat on a shelf at the Fayetteville Police Department for 30 years. We finally got around to sending it off for DNA testing using funding from the Sexual Assault Initiative grant. And lo and behold, we get a hit. The suspect’s in custody. We’re getting the victim some justice.”

Justice delayed is still justice, but it’s an incredible injustice that in so many of this state’s police departments, those rape kits still sit on shelves instead of being processed and the investigations pursued aggressively. If the Survivor Act becomes law, that won’t happen again.

But more arrests as those backlogged evidence kits are processed won’t happen automatically. Fayetteville has the good fortune to have John Somerindyke on its police department, pursuing cold cases with an intensity and dedication that’s above and beyond the norm, even for top-notch cops. It’s why he was named the department’s Police Officer of the Year in 2018.

In clearing up the backlog of evidence kits and bringing rapists to justice, the success of the Survivor Act will depend on more police departments putting officers like Somerindyke in charge of their cold-case efforts — and giving them the resources they need to pursue the suspects.

But even if that doesn’t happen in all of the state’s police agencies, the act’s requirement that evidence kits be tested promptly will prevent a recurrence of the longstanding backlog and create the opportunity for justice to be administered more promptly. No more 30-year delays.

Moore County Republican Rep. Jamie Boles, who has long been involved in criminal justice issues, said Tuesday that, “Funding will be provided. This is not a political football.” That’s an encouraging word that leads us to hope a discouraging problem will finally be solved. No one should have to wait decades for justice.

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