Rape Victim Sues City of Houston Over Former Massive Rape-Kit Backlog

Rape kit backlog has a long and storied history in Houston.
Rape kit backlog has a long and storied history in Houston. Photo by Hakom Dahlstrom/Flickr
A rape victim who waited five years for her rape kit to be tested in Houston's crime lab has sued the city, alleging that the Houston Police Department's repeated failure to test rape kits allowed her rapist to go free for years before ultimately victimizing her in 2011.

DeJenay Beckwith has sued the current and former mayors and police chiefs going back to Mayor Kathy Whitmire and Chief Lee P. Brown, who each took office in 1982, saying the successive city leaders each knew about severe rape kit testing backlogs for years yet were indifferent, never providing the funding to address the problem and bring rapists to justice quickly.

Beckwith's attorney, Randall Kallinen, said that while waiting for five years for test results to return on the rape kit was frustrating for his client, the real problem, and the one that has haunted Beckwith, is the fact that the man had raped multiple people before assaulting her. In each of those cases — which took place in 2002 and 2009 — Kallinen claims that those victims' rape kits also sat on shelves for years before being tested. It was not until 2014, he said, that David Lee Cooper was charged with the 2002 sexual assault of a 16-year-old girl. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison.

Kallinen said Cooper's DNA had been on file since 1991 — the first time he was accused of rape.

"A lot of the lawsuit does not have to do with the fact that they didn’t test [Beckwith's rape kit], but that they didn’t test the earlier victims’ rape kits so that they could have caught the guy before he raped my client," Kallinen said. "If they had checked on those sexual assaults, my client’s sexual assault would never have occurred, because they would have got him on the other cases. But they didn't process the lab kits."

The failure to test a backlog of thousands of rape kits was a controversy that waged on for more than a decade. In 2013, Mayor Annise Parker sought grant money so that the HPD crime lab could get to work on testing a backlog of a whopping 6,600 rape kits dating back more than a dozen years in some cases. In 2014, forensic-science experts took over the HPD crime lab — which was renamed the Houston Forensic Science Center — and pledged increased transparency, more independent oversight to avoid errors and, of course, to never again reach the backlog levels that HPD saw throughout the 2000s and early 2010s.

Dr. Peter Stout, executive director of the HFSC, declined to comment, citing pending litigation. But in a statement, he said, "Since taking over management of the city’s forensic operations in 2014, HFSC has worked ceaselessly to eliminate backlogs, decrease turnaround times and provide the justice system with the right answer at the right time. We have eliminated a backlog of sexual assault evidence, and are working to sustain a 30-day turnaround time for sexual assault evidence and for all other evidence."

According to HFSC's September 2017 Operations Report, the average turnaround time on DNA testing, which includes sexual assault evidence and rape kits, is 77 days. Currently, HFSC has a backlog of 744 DNA cases that haven't been tested within 30 days.

Kallinen said that, in court, he will be seeking injunctive relief, perhaps a court order to ensure that HFSC never surpasses the 30-day target with rape kit testing.

"We’re seeking to ensure that [what happened to Beckwith] won’t happen again," Kallinen said.

According to the lawsuit, in 2011 Beckwith was walking home along Bissonnet when a man pulled up next to her and asked if she wanted a ride. She explained that she was walking because her car was broken down, but she didn't need a ride. The man persisted, saying that actually he was a mechanic and could help her. Seeing his oily hands, Beckwith decided to give him a chance.

When they arrived at her home, the man inspected her car, ultimately telling her it looked like she would need a new motor. He asked for a glass of water — and then, inside her apartment, according to the lawsuit, the man threw her to the floor, hit her repeatedly and raped her.

Beckwith called police and also went to Memorial Hermann Southwest for a rape kit that day.

Five years later, Kallinen says, the results turned out to be a match with David Lee Cooper.

In the lawsuit — which Kallinen plans will be a class-action suit eventually, with potentially as many as 6,000 plaintiffs — attorneys argue that Houston's failure to test the rape kits amounted to a violation of due process and equal protection, given the city's lack of urgency to investigate women's complaints of sexual assault and failure to take them seriously. Attorneys also argue that what happened to Beckwith amounts to unreasonable search and seizure, since, after performing an invasive rape kit on Beckwith, they let the DNA sit on shelves for years.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn