After Amy Smith was kidnapped off the streets of Austin and repeatedly raped by her captors, she did everything “right.” She immediately reported her rape to the police. She acquired and completed a rape kit and repeatedly checked in on its status. She pleaded with authorities to move forward with the case.
But that would never happen. Smith’s case was dismissed without her knowledge, and her rapist went on to assault at least two other women. Now, 10 years later, she’s taking action and suing the state.
Smith and two other Texas women, Julie Ann Nitsch and Marina Conner, filed a lawsuit on behalf of all survivors who have been subjected to similar systemic failures which alleges that government officials have repeatedly “disbelieved, dismissed and denigrated female victims of sexual assault, failed to have DNA evidence tested for years at a time, and refused to investigate of prosecute cases of sexual assault against female survivors.”
Conner reported her rape less than 24 hours after the assault occurred and even had her cries for help recorded on the voicemail of a friend she attempted to call for help. Her rapist admitted to “having sex with her.” She routinely called to check in on her case and tried to provide any evidence she could against her rapist. But when her rape kit came back with no DNA—because she had showered immediately after the assault, not knowing this could compromise the results—Conner was told her case could not be prosecuted.
Conner didn’t think twice about exposing the system that has continuously failed her. “They allowed this predator to live a happy, free life and to possibly rape again, while every moment I suffer,” she told Ms. “I literally attempted to contact anyone with a government or political position. Being raped forces you into survival mode—you fight for your life, and I haven’t stopped fighting.” After her own rape, Conner went on to found SAFE Austin, an organization that provides a safe place with on-call counselors and sexual assault nurse examiners for those in need.
The case filed by Smith, Conner and Nitsch is bigger than their own stories—which is a driving force in their pursuit of justice. “I want people to look into their county’s sexual assaults prosecution numbers and call their DA’s to let them know those numbers aren’t high enough,” Conner said. “Be aware of how anyone you are voting for stands with this issue and publicly let them know that you want action. Find bills in the national or state house and senate that are moving survivors forward, like testing all the backlogged rape kits, because this is happening in every city. Until we eradicate violence against women, everyone can and should be doing something to make survivors know they are believed before they even speak.”
Conner is right to assert that the Lone Star State is not alone in mishandling rape kits. Ms. has reported on the nationwide problem of rape kit backlogs many times throughout the years, and women fighting back have done so at the state and national level. But in comparison to the rest of the country’s shortcomings, Travis County’s statistics are still particularly dismal.
About five to 20 percent of rapes are reported to police nationwide, but only 0.4 to 5.4 percent are prosecuted, and only 0.2 to 5.2 percent of those prosecutions result in a conviction. Travis County numbers for prosecution and conviction fall on the lowest end or worse than the national average: Over 1,000 women there report violent sexual crimes to law enforcement each year, but less than 10 of the cases are prosecuted; according to public records, the only case of sexual assault that was prosecuted through trial from summer of 2016 to summer of 2017 was one with a male survivor. In a recent study of Austin law enforcement officers handling cases of sexual assault, 66 percent had not even received training on how to read or interpret the results of a sexual assault forensic exam.
“To have the opportunity to stand up for these plaintiffs—and all women of Austin—and to advocate for their equality and their humanity, and to seek justice for them, is an honor,” Jennifer Ecklund, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an email to Ms. “On an even more personal note, the reality is that if nothing changes, one day I will need to tell my daughters that law enforcement does not protect women who are sexually assaulted, and that their attackers rarely, if ever, are held accountable. That is simply not tolerable. Things have to change.”
Amy Smith is a pseudonym.