Lavinia Masters was 13 when a rapist broke into her bedroom in the dark of night, put a knife to her throat and threatened to kill her if she reported the crime.
Hours later, undeterred by the threats, Lavinia underwent the painstaking process for collecting DNA evidence, determined to help police find and prosecute her attacker.
That was 1985.
Almost 20 years passed. The evidence sat untested, and the case remained unsolved, with her attacker still potentially at large.
But around 2006, the local police department began to sift through its backlog of untested DNA kits, when it was discovered that a man already in prison for committing other sexual assaults was linked to Lavinia's case.
I had the chance to learn about Lavinia's disturbing story recently, while doing an interview with CNN. Shockingly, her case isn't unusual. It's part of a national problem.
Thousands, and by some estimates hundreds of thousands, of rape kits are sitting untested, collecting dust in police departments' evidence lockers around the country. Meanwhile, victims' attackers remain free to roam the streets and assault other innocent children and women.
In Illinois alone, there remain at least 4,000 untested kits stored away in police departments throughout the state, according to Human Rights Watch.
Ask anyone to name the most serious crimes - rape and murder always top the list. I cannot imagine our criminal justice system ignoring important evidence in a murder case. How then can we stand by as vital evidence in tens of thousands of rape cases sits on shelves ignored?
What message does this send to the children and women who are the primary victims of sexual assault when law enforcement doesn't take their cases seriously?
When a rape victim undergoes the long, invasive process of collecting evidence from her body, she puts faith in our justice system to find her attacker and prosecute him. When those evidence kits wind up ignored and attackers remain free, other victims of sexual assault are discouraged from coming forward. They don't believe justice will be pursued.
So maybe it shouldn't be surprising that in Illinois, as few as 30 percent of rapes are reported to police, according to the Illinois Coalition Against Sexual Assault. We can't tolerate a justice system that requires a victim to endure a such a painstaking process only to dismiss her in the long run.
An initiative by my office signed into law July 6 will help assure the system no longer fails these victims. We convened a working group last fall to develop an effective statewide policy for gathering and analyzing evidence in sexual assault cases. As a result, at the beginning of this year's legislative session, we introduced a bill that would make Illinois the first state in the nation to mandate the testing of evidence collected in cases of sexual assault. This measure gained unanimous support in the General Assembly.
Under this new law, investigating law enforcement agencies are required to submit all evidence of sexual assault to the crime lab within 10 days of receiving it from a hospital. It also requires law enforcement agencies to provide the Illinois State Police an inventory of all untested kits in their possession to establish a timeline to complete their analyses.
This law has the potential for ushering in great change. In New York City, for example, when the city's law enforcement agencies instituted a policy in 2001 to test every rape kit that the New York Police Department booked into evidence, rape arrests increased from 30 percent in 1999 to 70 percent in 2007.
In Illinois, we expect similar results. More investigations will proceed, prosecution rates will increase, and victims and their attackers each will receive the justice they deserve. Victims of rape have been traumatized enough. The criminal justice system must offer them hope and closure rather than callous disregard.
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