For survivors of a traumatic attack, it’s not uncommon for these individuals to bottle up their feelings and experiences, and never to discuss them with the world.
But for Debbie Smith, a rape survivor, sharing her story as an advocate for legislative change has seemingly become her life’s purpose.
A decade and a half ago, her work resulted in the passage of the Debbie Smith Act which provided funding for rape kit DNA testing. But all that may now be in jeopardy, since the Act expires the end of this month, and hasn’t yet been reauthorized by the House of Representatives. Although funding will continue through FY 2019, future funding is still uncertain.
First passed in 2004, and reauthorized in 2008 and 2014 with bipartisan support, the law has helped channel $151 million to the Justice Department and law enforcement agencies to fund rape kit processing, as well as other advancements such as training courses.
Most notably, since 2005, the Act is credited with supplying the funding to local and state crime laboratories that tested over 860,000 DNA cases.
Ending funding for the Act, which was unanimously reauthorized by the Senate in May, would almost certainly mean that the still-high rape kit backlog will grow, with perpetrators of rape unpunished, advocates say.
The reauthorization bill approved by the Senate would authorize:
- $151 million for the Debbie Smith DNA Backlog grant program,
- $12.5 million for grants to state and local governments to conduct training about the use of DNA evidence, and
- $30 million for grants to state and local governments and other entities for programs to collect and use DNA evidence related to sexual assaults.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill would cost $644 million over the 2020-2024 period and $324 million after 2024.
Reauthorization of the Act has been caught up in an inside-the-beltway tangle between both houses of Congress. In April, the House reauthorized the Debbie Smith funding as part of its vote in April to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), putting two separate bills on the table. But critics now say the House is holding up further action as part of its efforts to tighten VAWA.
“Congress has an opportunity to pass two separate pieces of legislation to support victims of sexual assault and domestic violence,’ said Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in a press statement last July. “Sadly, both bills have gotten caught in the crosshairs of political jockeying in the House, with Democrats using a tit-for-tat strategy that has frozen both bills.
“It’s not fair to Debbie Smith and other victims of sexual assault for House Democrats to hold them hostage over a separate bill that’s still be negotiated in good faith by members on both sides of the aisle.”
The drive to reauthorize the Act received a boost this summer from Democratic presidential contender Kamala Harris, who promised an additional $100 million in funding to help state law enforcement cut the backlog—an amount she claimed was equal to what President Donald Trump “spent on his golf trips.”
Smith’s story bears repeating, as a reminder of what’s at stake.
On the afternoon of March 3, 1989, in her hometown of Williamsburg, Va., Smith was busy making a cake to enjoy after a planned dinner with a friend later that evening. Her husband, a police officer, was asleep upstairs after working a midnight shift, and her children were at school.
“While I was mixing the batter, a masked man came up behind me and he ended up abducting me and taking me outside the woods behind my house where he robbed and raped me,” Smith told The Crime Report.
“All he said to me was that If I ever said anything, he was going to come back to kill me and my entire family.”
The constant fear that haunted her after the attack was debilitating, Smith recalled.
She had to wait until 1995, six and a half years after the crime, for a DNA match to the rape kit evidence from her attacker. A suspect, Norman D. Jimmerson, was identified; he was finally convicted in 1998 of sexually assaulting Smith.
Jimmerson was already serving 161 years in prison for abducting and robbing two other local women 9 years prior—the same year he raped Smith.
Because the DNA in her rape kit was analyzed and her rapist identified, the world felt a bit safer, Smith said.
But other rape kits that are backlogged and sitting in police department’s property rooms collecting dust on shelves do no good for anyone —except rapists, she added.
When a rape kit is tested, the DNA from the assailant is submitted to the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) to identify a match to any person with a past offense. This database needs to be expansive because it’s crucial in identifying serial rapists and killers.
According to the CODIS website, the database has produced more than 475,000 matches, solving a variety of crimes.
Of those 475,000 hits, the National Institute of Justice found, about 42 percent came as a direct result of the Debbie Smith Act. Putting it another way, if there were no testing, an estimated 200,000 cases might otherwise have gone unsolved.
To push the House, leaders of the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) said that they have accumulated over 32,000 signatures from online petitions urging lawmakers to reauthorize the Act.
“Without [the Debbie Smith Act] passing in the House, literally hundreds of thousands of people will be stuck waiting for DNA analysis, and those victims are going to wait for answers that may never come,” Debbie said.
“The House, right now, has the power to change lives,” said Smith, who founded her own organization, H-E-A-R-T, Inc. (Hope Exists After Rape Trauma).
“I truly believe in my heart that they will do the right thing when the time comes.”
Andrea Cipriano is a staff reporter for The Crime Report