AUSTIN (KXAN) — Three women who say they’ve been victims of sexual assault are suing various departments in Austin and Travis County claiming they were denied “equal access to justice and equal protection of the law,” according to a lawsuit.
The 60-page class action complaint, which is being filed in federal court, lists the following entities as the defendants: city of Austin, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, former Travis County DA Rosemary Lehmberg, Austin Police Chief Brian Manley, former APD Chief Art Acevedo, Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez and the county itself.
The lawsuit claims the three women were subjected to “policies, customs, and practices that discriminate against them based on their gender.”
The suit goes on to say the county failed to test DNA evidence for “years at a time” and “refused” to prosecute cases. According to the suit, less than 10 percent of sexual assault cases are prosecuted in Travis County every year.
One of the plaintiffs in the case is “Amy Smith,” a sexual assault case from Oct. 8, 2008.
Smith, a pseudonym used for the victim, spoke to KXAN’s Sally Hernandez earlier this year when we highlighted how APD’s DNA lab mishandled evidence in her case. An audit determined some of the DNA evidence in Smith’s case was likely cross-contaminated.
The charges against the suspect in Smith’s case, Tyrone Lloyd Robinson, were dropped in 2013 in order to refile the charges in 2014 after sending all the forensic evidence to outside labs for testing.
However, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore says she decided to drop all the charges against the suspect in Smith’s case in October 2017 after learning of his sexual assault charges in the Houston area.
Because Smith’s case isn’t being prosecuted in Travis County, she “will never have a day in court to bring her rapist to justice,” states the court document. “The delay was caused by the specific actions and inactions by APD and the DA and the former DA, with assistance from the abject incompetence of the APD DNA Lab…”
The second plaintiff, Julie Ann Nitsch, says when she was attacked in her south Austin apartment in 2010 the police “asked her how much she had to drink that night, what she had been wearing, and why she lived in a bad neighborhood.” She says her attacker ran off and had used cords to prevent her roommate from being able to get to her.
In the months following her assault, the lawsuit states she never heard from police on the results of her rape kit. Nitsch states her experience has “been so negative” that she “doubts reporting an assault today in Travis County would lead to any meaningful action.”
“It’s mostly a fear that it’s going to happen again and nobody is going to do anything about it,” Nitsch said of why she joined the lawsuit. “That if I live alone or with a woman roommate again, it could easily happen to me again. It could be the same person and there will be no justice.”
The third plaintiff, Marina Conner, says she was sexually assaulted at a parking garage in downtown Austin in August 2015. Authorities were able to arrest the suspect in her case, however, her rape kit was in limbo for more than a year due to the APD DNA lab closing in June of 2016.
In 2017, two years after her attack, Conner was informed that APD and the District Attorney’s Office would not be pursuing her case any further “because there was no DNA present in her rape kit.”
“With every injustice that APD, Travis County and DA Margaret Moore committed against me, I lost trust in every system and, essentially, the world around me,” Conner said at the press conference.
According to the lawsuit, the suspect acknowledged in text messages and statements that “he had sex with her on the night of the rape and that he had tried to sell her drugs on the street.”
The suit goes on to say the various agencies failed to properly train and supervise employees handling sexual assault cases or evidence.
The suit is seeking monetary damages. The attorney representing the victims, Jennifer Ecklund, says other victims who want to join the lawsuit should contact her office.
Travis County DA Margaret Moore says she has, “No comment. Haven’t seen it [the lawsuit].”
A spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office says they don’t comment on pending litigation.
By the Numbers
The lawsuit bases its claims of discrimination on a spring report that breaks down sexual assault investigations from summer of 2016 to summer 2017.
During that time the Austin Police Department received more than 1,200 reports of sexual assault crimes. They investigated more than 1,100 of those but the agency only arrested 96 people.
Is that a lot? Not compared to state data.
APD only made arrests in 8 percent of the sexual assaults they investigated. According to data from the Department of Public Safety, in 2016, across the state, 37 percent of rape investigations resulted with an arrest; compared to a 66 percent arrest rate for murder, 23 percent for robbery and 10 percent for burglary.
Taking a closer look at numbers from the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, prosecution isn’t cut and dry
Two-hundred-and-twenty-four cases were referred to the DA’s Office from various law enforcement agencies within the county. Of the 224, prosecutors decided to prosecute a third of the cases and only one case went to trial and was found guilty—in which the victim was a man. But, 25 of the defendants received some type of punishment such as pleading to a lesser charge, pleaded guilty as charged or plead to a different felony.