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Of Lipstick, Law and Order

Barry Nolan

The Backstory

In the spring of 1989, Debbie Smith was raped. While her husband was asleep upstairs, Debbie was kidnapped from her own back yard in Williamsburg, Virginia, dragged into the woods and raped. Her attacker left her with the threatening words that he knew where she lived, and she had best not tell anyone of her shame. But Debbie Smith would not be cowed. She immediately told her husband, a police officer, and the rape was officially reported.

We are told that most rapes are not reported. It is no small wonder when you consider what they must go through simply to give evidence. A forensic rape evidence collection kit contains a large piece of white paper which must be placed on a clean floor. The victim stands on the paper and takes off all their clothes. Their pubic hair is carefully combed, looking for trace evidence. The area underneath their fingernails is carefully scraped, looking for possible sources of the rapist's DNA. They must be carefully photographed everywhere and then examined taking careful note of all injuries, bruises and scratches. Swabs are taken. From everywhere. It is invasive, and humiliating even under the best of circumstances. They must tell their story, again and again, telling in as much detail as they can bear. And when they leave the hospital, they must borrow something to wear. Their clothes have been taken as evidence. All too often they must leave wearing the hospital "johnnies". And they go through all this immediately after a terrifying and traumatic experience that often leaves victims with lifetime emotional scars.

It would be six and a half years before Debbie Smith felt truly safe and secure again. That was when she was told that her rapist had been found. He was already in prison for kidnapping and robbing two other women. When his DNA was put into the system, it had been matched with the DNA from Debbie's case. The perp is now serving two life sentences plus 25 years.

Sadly, Debbie Smith in some ways was almost lucky. After languishing without a match for years, some rape evidence kits simply get thrown away. Some never get the DNA tests performed. Recent estimates suggest that nationwide, somewhere between 160,000 to 500,000 rape evidence kits are just sitting on shelves, waiting to be tested.

The Bill


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That is why Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and her colleagues in the House and Senate have worked hard and long to pass the Debbie Smith Act in order to reform DNA evidence collection and to lock up sexual predators. Thanks to the inspiration of Debbie Smith and the dogged and unflagging support of Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and her colleagues, the Debbie Smith Act will soon be law. It directs the US Attorney General to determine the number of untested rape kits around the country and provides money to address the testing backlog. It calls on the Department of Justice to develop a national protocol for the collection and use of DNA as evidence in courtrooms and will give grants to establish and maintain sexual assault examiner programs. This all supports the kind of common-sense, systematic, scientific police work that can make a big impact on the most reprehensible of crimes.

The Blowback

One of the Senate sponsors of the bill was Joe Biden, who was also author of the Violence Against Women Act. It should be noted here, that there is a curious political irony at work in this election season. Law and order issues were once part of the mainstay of the Republican party's agenda. It is the one kind of regulation that they feel comfortable embracing. Next to murder, rape must be considered to be the most destructive of crimes for both the victims and their families. Almost anything that prevents it, lessens its impact or brings to justice the perpetrators, seems like good public policy.

And yet we have this year a Republican Vice Presidential candidate who served as mayor in a very small town when it became the policy to charge rape victims for the cost of their rape evidence collection kits. This can be as much as $1,200. It may also be worth noting, that most rape kits contain emergency contraception, the "Morning After" pill. Gov. Palin is famously against abortions even in the case of rape.

And then, in the ongoing "Troopergate" investigation, Ms. Palin's own lawyer recently claimed that the real reason Palin fired the state police chief was because he had planned an "unapproved" trip to Washington D.C. to lobby for federal funds to combat the problem of sexual assaults in Alaska. Sadly that state leads the nation in violent rape (ABC News recently came up with a signed travel approval for the trip). And to make it all even more disturbing, the man Palin chose to replace the dismissed chief had to resign after two weeks in office when his history of sexual harassment charges came to light.

No one should suggest that Ms. Palin, the first woman to run on a Republican Presidential ticket, does not take rape seriously as a crime. But her judgment about how to deal with it as a matter of public policy deserves further examination. A question perhaps in the upcoming debate? If John McCain really wants to portray himself as a champion of women's issues, perhaps he should consider dropping Palin and asking Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney to join him on a ticket..... It would make him look a little crazy, but at least he would have a little "cred."

Barry Nolan is a veteran TV journalist who was fired by Comcast Cable's CN8 channel in Boston for protesting an award honoring Bill O'Reilly.

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