There are new developments in our “Test the Kits” investigation, which we have been bringing you for almost two years. There are now new rights for sexual assault victims, who for years have been re-victimized by the system.
Rape kits, which hold DNA evidence that can take perpetrators off the streets, had never been sent for testing. Not only are those kits being tested years later, but now, a new law ensures victims know they have the right to have their kits examined and find out the results.
The governor signed the bill last week. It goes into effect July first.
While in the past laws and grants have focused on the practical efforts of testing thousands of rape kits that had been left collecting dust on shelves in police departments, this law focuses on the victims to make sure they are never left out of the process again.
For rape victims, whose power and dignity have been stripped away by perpetrators, knowing their rape kits have been tested and finding out the results, can sometimes be the first positive step in a painful investigative process.
For Debbie Smith, the police officer’s wife who was pulled from her Williamsburg home and raped, it marked a turning point. Her case was solved through a DNA cold hit.
“I literally remember taking a deliberate breath because I wanted to live again,” she recalled.
Senate Bill 1501, which is now the law in Virginia, can give that same relief to other victims. It is part of Attorney General Mark Herring’s ongoing efforts to fix the system that has victimized so many.
He spoke only to 13News Now after the bill was signed.
“We are moving beyond the time when these cases were swept under the rug or not taken seriously and that’s going to mean so much for survivors of sexual assault,” he said.
As part of those efforts, a group of experts have come up with best practices for what’s called “trauma-informed protocols.” They’re supposed to be the most sensitive way to notify victims.
“When they’re notified it could trigger a lot of difficult and painful memories,” Herring explained. “What we’re doing is making sure that it is done in a way that is best for the survivor and putting the survivor first.”
That could vary from locality to locality, depending on the services in that particular community. But no matter the resources, this law means the focus is on the victims.
“The great thing about laws like this is that it begins to put power and control back in the hands of survivors, which is incredibly important as they seek justice,” Herring added.
For victim-turned-advocate Debbie Smith, the hope is for others like her, now justice will also mean healing and recovery.
“Behind every one of those kits is a life,” she lamented. “An old wound is being opened up and so where do we go from here is to make sure that not only do we solve their case, but we make sure that they’re taken care of, as well.”
The governor will hold a ceremonial bill signing service for Senate Bill 1501 in Richmond Thursday.
This story originally appeared on 13News Now.