In a move that could alter the lives of thousands of people and their families, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., the Manhattan District Attorney, has pledged $35 million to run DNA tests on over 70,000 rape cases nationwide. The money will be shared with towns across the U.S. in an effort to clear the backlog of untested rape kits that contain swabs and specimens collected during victims' examinations, reported the AP. The results could help identify perpetrators, clear those suspected, and perhaps vindicate those wrongfully convicted.
In a press conference that included Law and Order: Special Victims Unit actor Mariska Hargitay, who is also advocates for sexual assault survivors, and Michigan prosecutor Kym Worthy, Vance said:
Rape victims nationwide deserve to know that the invasive examination they underwent had a purpose, and the resulting kit was not left to gather dust on a forgotten shelf.
We want them to know that we, as a nation, are doing everything in our power to bring justice to them.
Hargitay, whose Joyful Heart Foundation aims at helping sex crime victims, added that the backlog of untested rape kits sends the wrong message to victims and perpetrators alike.
To victims, it says, "You don't matter. What happened to you doesn't matter." And to criminals, it says, "What you did doesn't matter."
Mostly due to the cost of testing — about $500 to $1,000 per kit — many rape kits remain neglected, some even decades old. In Memphis, 200 kits, dating as far back as 1976, were recently discovered in a warehouse, adding to the 12,000 untested ones in backlog. In 2009, over 11,000 rape kits were found in a deserted police warehouse in Detroit, thanks to Worthy, who is a leading figure in the campaign to eliminate the backlog of rape kits.
The $35 million comes from a settlement with BNP Paribas, a French bank that pleaded guilty to violating U.S. economic sanctions by concealing the billions of dollars in transfers with clients in Sudan, Iran and Cuba. The bank agreed on a settlement of $8.8 billion, reported the Times, and New York receives about a quarter — or $2.2 billion — of that. Of New York's share, a portion is allocated to the Manhattan DA's office — and it seems to already be put to good use.
Although New York state communities will get priority funding applications, Vance said that the money will be distributed nationwide as crime prevention:
Rape is not a local crime. Many who rape, do it again elsewhere and DNA evidence helps states and cities solve crimes across the country.
Vance also said that a decade back, the city's undertaking of 17,000 untested kits that were accumulated over the years resulted in over 200 prosecutions citywide. The Obama administration is also awaiting the approval of Congress for $41 million to reduce such backlogs, and hopefully Vance's move will help the campaign gain momentum.
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