Rape kits: Michael Bennet touts bill to enhance evidence processing

Rebecca Gershten and Becca Beall Oschner know the importance of rape kits. In 2005, both women were victimized by serial rapist Brent Brents. Their rape kits helped lead to his capture.

"Thankfully, our rape kits were processed in record time, which provided the proof necessary to arrest him," Gershten said this morning at a press conference outside Denver's new crime lab.

The women spoke today in favor of a bill introduced by Senator Michael Bennet to reduce the rape kit backlog nationwide.

Bennet toured the $28 million crime lab, which opened last month, before delivering remarks about his bill, known as the SAFER Act. He called Denver "a worldwide leader when it comes to solving cold cases." In 2004, Denver got a federal grant to analyze DNA in cold cases where there was no suspect. Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey says they've looked at about 5,000 cases. The lab was able to extract biological evidence in about 1,000 of them, he says, leading to more than eighty successful prosecutions.

"Ninety percent of the crimes we solve with DNA, women are the victims of those crimes. They are violent crimes that involve sexual assault and murder," Morrissey said this morning. "The 10 percent that are left, about 9.5 are kids. That's why I'm here today, because I know how important this legislation is to Denver, to the State of Colorado and to the United States." He thanked Bennet and U.S. Senator Mark Udall for securing more federal funding last year to keep the cold case program going.

But other jurisdictions haven't been so fortunate. There is a backlog of at least 400,000 untested rape kits nationwide, Bennet said -- a number he hopes the SAFER Act will decrease. The bill would reallocate existing federal funds to states to pay for audits and processing of rape kits in law enforcement storage facilities.

"We believe most women who agree to do these exams never believe that their rape kit will be backlogged and not tested," Beall Oschner said. She praised Denver law enforcement, "who quickly process rape kits and who strive to lessen the trauma by acknowledging the possibility that backlogging leads to re-victimization and postpones justice."

Beall Oschner and Gershten met just a week after their assaults. They grew close and spoke today about how they've come to lean on each other for support. "We can share the intimate details of being dehumanized," Gershten said. "We can share the details we do not share with our loved ones. We can share the details of our experiences in the hospital, with the rape kits, with the police, with the attorneys and our therapists.

"Becca has been there when I thought I was losing my mind."

"The collection of our DNA means victims may not unnecessarily be subjected to going downtown and having to pick the perpetrator out of a lineup," Beall Oschner added. "It means we can walk through Denver knowing Brents is in prison for several life sentences and will never be on the streets. It means we don't have to live in fear."

The SAFER Act has been referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, but no hearing has been scheduled. Bennet's spokesman says the senator is hopeful it will be included in a larger bill with the opportunity to pass Congress this fall.

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